Webster

He lies on his bed and watches the light patterns change on the ceiling.

It’s been twelve hours and seventeen minutes since he stepped into the front door and stood amid the balloons and friends and relatives who crowded too close, hugging and kissing and crying. Though he wanted to run away screaming, he forced himself to smile and say how glad he was to be home.

The house smelled like a mix of roast beef and cherry pie, but it made his stomach tighten. He missed his mom’s cooking, but there was so much of it. He had gotten out of the habit of eating, and they just kept trying to feed him. The home seems so alien it scares him. When he and his dad and Uncle Brad and his cousins Pauly and Jimbo went out to smoke cigars, he stood with his back to the house on high alert in the deepening twilight.

“You seem a little out of it,” Pauly said.

“Just tired. It was a long plane ride.”

“Now you can go to college like you always wanted,” his dad says.

He doesn’t know if he can focus any more, and even if he could, he can’t see himself fitting in with carefree undergrads. They may have read more novels or know more science, but he’s seen guys lit up like Fourth of July rockets. He’s seen a guy cut in half. He’s picked up body parts after a landmine blew up a jeep full of his friends. After three tours, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen

They call him a hero, but he’s not. He’s a survivor. He has a few scars on his arms and hands, but he’s intact.  In country they called him Magic Man.

Now he hears screams all the time. He jumps when anyone comes up behind him. He lies on his bed and stares at the ceiling because he can’t sleep, and he’s afraid if he goes to the doctor, he’ll be branded a mental case and won’t be able to get a job.

He hears scratching at his door and bolts up, but it’s only Webster, his parents Golden Retriever. Webster’s gait is a little slower these days, but he still jumps on the bed with grace and crawls up against him. He gives a soft whimper and butts him.

It’s a small comfort to lie against this yellow dog, to feel his warmth and run his fingers through his soft fur. The simple repetition is soothing. He listens in the dark to Webster’s panting and hears him begin to snore.

He edges closer to the dog and wraps his arms around him. As always a curious sense of calm descends on him, and his body adjusts to the rhythm of the dog’s breathing. There’s no judgement, no too eager attempt to be cheerful, just unconditional acceptance. Webster might as well be part of him.

“Help me,” he says. “I want to come home.”

 

The Champion

They hanged Rudy in the morning. Strung him up and took turns shooting at him long after he was dead.  Poor Rudy was too sick to care; he barely whimpered when they dragged him out to the big old tree by the dried up well and put the rope around his neck. They dumped his body in the well.

At least he was free.

Jack moved slowly over to the edge of the cell and put his mouth against the corner. It rained last night and a trickle of water continued to drip into the dark box. With the downpour last night, they’d gotten a kind of reprieve when the water poured through a crack in the cement and they were able to satisfy their terrible thirst. He didn’t know if it was a mercy or not. In the end, they were all going to the same place.

A few of the smaller ones looked like they’d only last a day or two more at best. Flies settled on them, and they were too weak to knock them off. They labored to breathe. Jack nudged one over to the corner to drink some of the healing water. He should have let him go, but it wasn’t in Jack’s nature.

That’s what made him a champion for so long, but even champions wore out eventually. He couldn’t last much longer. His bones ached and his empty belly rumbled. Sores covered his body.

He heard footsteps and drunken laughter. “Let’s get the big bastard.”

“I don’t know. He’s still got some fight in him.“

“Don’t worry. How much fight could have left? Anyway, it’ll make it more fun. That last one went too easy.”

“Idiot. He’s got teeth.”

“So what?”

The voices came closer, and Jack moved to the back of the cell. They wouldn’t get him without a fight.

He hated the men, especially the short, skinny one with the black hair. He smelled like blood and evil.

For a while he used to dream of breaking free, of running away, and no one would catch him. He’d be Lord Jackson again, the king of the track, fastest of the fast.

A rumbling sound in the distance made Jack’s ears prick up. A storm rolling in, maybe? At least the others would have another day of water.

“Oh shit!” The men stopped coming and started to run.

Cars came roaring into the compound, and voices shouted. When the cell door opened, Jack’s body trembled, and he felt himself fall.

Two women and a man came inside. “Oh God,” the one woman said. “It’s worse than I thought. Look at them, Marcia.”

The second woman was already picking up Daisy and brushing away the flies, “Poor baby, we’ll take care of you.” Daisy tried to raise her head. “Shh, girl. We’re here to help.”

The man approached Jack. “Hey, big fella,” he said softy. “Look at you. I won’t hurt you.”

Jack wanted to bite this human, but he had no strength. The man ran his hand down Jack’s side. “You’ve been here a while haven’t you?” He waited for the man to hit him, but he continued to pet him, his hands gentle. He pulled something out of his pocket a black rubbery thing that attached to his ears and had a silver bottom. He placed it against Jack’s chest. After a minute he looked up.

“How’re the others, Lisa?”

“Bad. Two are barely alive; this one is a little better. How’s the big guy?”

“I think he’ll be okay. He’s dehydrated and starving, but he’s a strong. I bet he was something in his day.”

“They all were once. All these beautiful dogs.”

Jack felt the man’s arms slide around him. “Okay, fella, I’m gonna pick you up and carry you to our ambulance. We’ll get some fluids and antibiotics in you, and you’ll feel a lot better.”

Jack whimpered in terror when the man wrapped him in something soft and lifted him, but the man was gentle as if he knew where all the cuts and sores were.

Blinking in the bright sunlight, Jack saw police cars and strange looking trucks. He saw other humans carrying greyhounds out of their cells and taking them to the trucks. Two men in uniforms stood with a third man by the well and stared down into it, their faces angry, but Jack didn’t see the men who killed his friends.

The man cradled his head against his chest so he couldn’t turn it.

The man said, “It’s okay, big guy. You’re safe now. No one will hurt you again.”

Jack wanted to tell the man he once was a champion, but he thought maybe the man already knew.

 

Edna’s Doggie Cafe

The corpulent gentleman always sat at the corner table where he could enjoy his tea, almond croissant, and mushroom omelet, and look out of the window in both directions. He always brought his dog, Uncle Wigglesworth, a waddling English bulldog, with him. Uncle Wigglesworth would settle under the table while the gentleman would surreptitiously feed him bits of pastry. Edna would bring him free strips of bacon.

A good arrangement all around, Edna thought. She liked the gentleman. He tipped well. She had no official policy at the cafe against dogs, and the worst thing Uncle Wigglesworth ever did was scratch himself from time to time and drool. After they left, she’d have to wipe up the puddle, but she didn’t mind.

Soon a few other customers began bringing their dogs. Tiny Mrs. Winkler brought her gray Teacup Poodle in her crocheted handbag. The actor with the soulful eyes brought his Basset Hound. The quivering lady who always gazed around the room in panic before she chose a table brought her Italian Greyhound. Edna always found a way to slip the dogs a treat.

Edna began to bake what she called “Delicious Doggie Delights.”

Her business grew. Her cafe was written up in three magazines, and she was thinking about expanding. She even asked her friend Dominic to carve a dog totem out of wood to stand in the window. Even though it was a rather abstract dog, it was her good luck charm, and Dominic needed money. Edna told her customers that the totem represented all dogs.

Then it happened.

On a particularly crowded Saturday, a white limo pulled up to the curb, and a man exited with two Great Danes. Edna recognized him immediately from the pages of The New York Times. Ignoring the line, he pushed his way through the door.  She listened to the scratching of the Great Danes’ nails across her newly polished floor.

“I need a table at once,” he said.

“I’m sorry, there’s a line. You can take out, if you’re in a hurry.”

“I don’t do take out. Do you know who I am?”

Edna put her hands on her hips. “Yes, I do. You the man whose bank said I wasn’t good enough for a loan. Said I was too high a risk. Then y’all tried to foreclose on my house when I never missed a payment. Now you come in here all high and might and treat me like a servant in my own shop? I don’t think so.”

The Great Danes growled.

That’s when the dogs came. First it was Uncle Wigglesworth. Then the Basset, then the Italian Greyhound, a Rottweiler, two black Labs, three mutts, and the teacup Poodle. They all bared their teeth.

“Call them off,” the man said.

Edna shrugged. “They’re not my dogs.”

She heard the growling of other dogs waiting with the customers in line. The Great Danes looked around uneasily.

“I think you best be going,” Edna said.

The man turned purple, but he left.

After he was gone, Edna filled bags and bags with free doggie treats; she thanked the owners. When she finally closed up shop for the day, she patted the dog in the window.

Her totem. She picked a good one.

Lulu

They gave him her favorite toy, and he tore at it until the corner ripped and bits of catnip spilled over the kitchen floor. Now he looked up at her with his eager eyes as if asking her to play. The fur on her back rose, and she moved closer to the edge of the counter.

Lulu doesn’t play.

In another room, someone said, “I’d better check the puppy. I can’t find Lulu.”

She leaped.

Lulu doesn’t share.

Someone pulled her off the whimpering intruder and carried her into the bedroom.

“Bad, Lulu. You scared the puppy.”

Lulu doesn’t care.