A branch of summer gold, cold and brittle to touch . . .
The boy sat in the shadow of an elm, a book between his hands and a dog to his right. The dog was more interesting than the book, but the book was part of Education, and thus impervious to the slander of logic. Nevertheless, the day was slowly growing hot, and a lazy breeze rustled through the boy's flaxen hair, making the letters of the page swim together in a medley of impossible ink.
A groan rose softly through the leaves. The dog laid his head sympathetically against the boy's lap, sad eyes staring into the distance.
"Our first week back," the boy grumbled. "Our first week, Oliver, and look what they're doing to us. It's not like they have anything useful to say either." He flipped rapidly, ruefully, through the thin sheaves of print paper. "And he's got a cat! How'm I supposed to sit here and read about some stupid old cat?"
The dog didn't stir. Some things required no discussion. Besides, it had other things to attend to.
A squirrel ran across the corner of its vision, making small stirs through the mild green grass of a neighbor's garden. An ear twitched once, twice, lay still. The boy's lap was so soft, so welcome, and the day so very warm . . . it closed its eyes with a low whine of pleasure, tail wagging lazily against the wind. It could've slept the whole afternoon, black fur soaking the rays of the sun, but its master had other plans. He, too, was staring into some horizon unknown, and a familiar gleam of mischief had entered his sparkling blue eyes.
"Father says I have to go to school so I can get a job when I'm older. But I already have a job, don't I?" The boy bolted to his feet, casting the book aside into a hollow in the roots. The dog rolled away, grunting, as its master snatched up a curling branch and shoved it into his sleeve, hiding his hand in the fabric so that the bough stuck out like a hook. "Pirates don't need to go to school!" cried the boy in jubilation. "Come on, Oliver. You don't get to be first mate by slouching about. Let's go loot some pinecones!"
A medal made of steel, veiled in dapper silver. . . .
The dog didn't know why its master was frowning. His scent was confused, but it carried an undertone of sadness, which the dog had tried unsuccessfully to cure. He nuzzled, he whined, he sat in silent companionship, but the boy's mood would not lift.
"He said he'd be gone a year, Oliver. Just a year. I was going to show him my violin."
Oliver scratched his ears with a hind leg. He could not understand the boy, though he had tried for very long, and it seemed that the boy could not understand him, either. It was a shame. He didn't know why his master was frowning. He wished that he could ask.
"Why can't I cry, Oliver? I should be crying. I've been trying all day."
For the first time, the dog noticed that his boy was staring at something in his hand. A disk, like the one that they played fetch with in the yard, but smaller, shinier, and adorned with odd grooves and bumps. Perhaps that was why he was frowning. He'd bought a useless disk. And though nothing of substance had changed, and the air of the room remained despondent, Oliver felt a little spark of hope, and the beginnings of a plan welled up in his faithful heart.
Later, as the boy slept, the dog took the useless disk from where it'd fallen on the floor. He took it outside as the day broke, easing through the pet door into a silent dawn, and threw it around the dew-damp grass. He didn't mind playing with the disk, odd though it was. He hoped the boy would see. He hoped the boy would stop his frowning.
As chance would have it, the mother of the boy, who had unlocked the pet door some time ago, saw it first. And she came out with a shoe and smacked the dog hard, sending him whining in confusion and pain into the house, while she yelled and cried and swore with such intensity that the boy woke jarringly from a restless slumber. He didn't quite hear the screaming, not yet, though later he would give Oliver a few extra treats and a soothing pat as apology.
When he woke his instinct moved his gaze to the window, where it moved aimlessly to the left and right. Only emptiness met his gaze; a sky blinded by pale brilliance, with no summer or pinecones to be seen.
A paper, rich cream, with a seal and proud black font. . . .
"I'm sorry, Oliver. I'll visit, alright? Every winter, every summer. Chin up, boy. It'll be alright."
The dog had watched his master pack the boxes. He'd watched him load them into the sleek blue car that he drove. And he knew now, as the boy stood outlined in the doorway, that he was going on no ordinary drive. He felt the boy was leaving. He didn't want the boy to leave.
"Hey, don't look at me like that. It'll be ok. Be tough for me, right?" The boy gave his dog one last pat, then straightened, for his mother was coming down the hall, tears in her eyes as she embraced him. She told him that she was proud of him, that his father would be, too.
"West Point! Oh, but we never dreamed. . . . well. I just wish he could've seen you." She put her hands against his face, beaming with pride and sorrow. "Stay safe. That's the most important thing."
"I'll see you Christmas."
A portrait framed in basket-weave, a sticker of a heart in the corner. . . .
"I'm sorry, Oliver, I'm so sorry, I don't know, he just isn't eating, I don't"--
"Mother. . . ."
"I've taken him to the vet. They're going to do surgery in the morning. I'm sorry."
"I'm coming back home."
"But your school"--
"It's going to have to wait, isn't it? I'm taking the next plane. Just tell him . . . tell him to hold on. For me, will you? Tell him to just hold on."
A collar tied to a ribbon red, with a name etched deep in the steel.
The boy shoved the spade into the ground. The hole had been filled for the second time, and he surveyed his work with a grim look of satisfaction.
His mother stood behind him.
"Are you sure? All those memories of him . . . are you sure?"
"It's what it is, I guess. You're moving. We can't take him with us. I want them to know what he was like, if they dig here. I don't want them to just plow him over because they want a backyard pool."
"I'm sure they wouldn't do that. . . ."
The boy wiped the sweat from his brow, but said nothing. There was precious little to be said. He looked back up through the branches of the elm, at the way the sunlight fell through the leafy boughs, and despite the strength in his limbs and the youthful power of his jaw and shoulders, he felt so very old.
A note with the words smudged out, by either design or ruthless Time. A pirate ship is drawn in the margins, and in place of the Jolly Roger are two smiling faces: A boy, of course, and a very crudely penciled dog. The ship's name is the Oliver, and it sails to ports unknown.