On the fifth consecutive day of our afternoon walks, we pass a man on the trail behind the house. I don’t put the dog on a leash back here, so he has free range to go up to the man bending down to pet him, and he gladly accepts the affection.
“He’s an old one, isn’t he?” The man says as the dog pants in his face. I’m not sure what gave it away—his labored breathing or the grey hair that’s infiltrated his once pure black fur.
All I can do is agree, “Yeah, he’s turning fourteen soon.”
The man doesn’t hear what I say. The dog is breathing too loud and I’m too far away. I repeat it, louder this time, and he’s nodding, holding the dog’s face in his hands. He’s saying something to the dog I can’t quite hear. A rendition of good boy, good boy, I imagine.
The dog’s tongue is hanging out, his saliva going everywhere. I’m embarrassed for a moment. It’s probably getting on his shoes. But he doesn’t say anything, he just stands up, begins walking again, and it’s over.
We stand watching as he gets farther away, listening to sticks crunch and break beneath his boots. We’re alone again.
The dog is like a puppy again on the trail. I watch as his mind races, the smells and sounds overloading his brain. I let him sniff for as long as he likes, explore each inch of the ground, and pee on every tree. I call his name, but he isn’t listening—he’s caught up in a new smell and the need to mark his territory.
He is happy here; among the trees and squirrels he wishes could be his friends. I could walk for miles with him. I think he would like that, if we never stopped, kept our feet moving, and ended up in another state. He would be happy no matter where we were, or what we did. If he was next to me, he’d be content.
But he starts coughing, and I know it’s time to stop.
Once we’re home, he waddles down the hallway, course set for his water bowl. I hurry to it before he does, filling it up in the sink before he can get there. He’s thirstier nowadays.
I catch him drinking out of the toilet at least once a day, even when we’re constantly replenishing his water. When I catch him in the toilet, he panics and starts coughing, so I’ve started pretending not to notice.
I haven’t figured out which of his organs is failing now that’s causing the incessant need for water. It says online it could be his kidneys or liver. The articles I read always use the word “might.” It might be this, it might be that.
I hear a trickle, and a spot on the kitchen rug turns dark. The dog hurries to his bed, keeping his head low and ears down. He can’t hold his bladder. He’s expecting anger from me, but I don’t say anything.
I grab the bottle of cleaner and paper towels from under the sink and scrub the spot away. He lays down, and stares up at me with his big eyes: I’m sorry.
I cry into the dog’s chest that night. I sit on the windowsill next to him on the bed with the air drifting in. It’s cold out but I’m hot from the tears.
I put my blanket on him, tuck him in like a baby, and watch his swollen belly move as he breathes in and out. My mom described his breathing as wet—the fluid in his lungs, she said. That’s why it’s swollen. He watches with concern and waits for me to get over my tantrum. Once I’m done, he sighs and rests his head on his paws.
I wake up to the memory of a dream: I’m standing in a pile of rubble after our house has burned down. I dig through it, desperate to find something that may have survived, but there’s nothing.
I pace around the perimeter, alone. But it isn’t real—the ceiling is still above me, the room hasn’t gone up in flames. I look down at the dog snoring beside my feet, blissfully unaware of my nightmare.
I rub my hand on his back, trying to memorize the patterns in his fur. White base coat, large black splotches swooping in and out. It resembles a splatter paint project, one I could’ve made as a kid. I touch his head, running my hands over his floppy ears, and that wakes him.
He looks back at me with an annoyed expression on his face, and I greet him with a smile. His eyes look sad, dark with an expression I can no longer read. He turns his head, rests it on my leg, and sighs.
The dog’s cough is bad the next day, and it takes him longer than usual to get out of bed. I’m not sure if I should bring him on our walk, but when he sees me reach for my sneakers, he becomes a puppy again–energized, and ready to go.
I can’t say no to him anymore.
As we walk, he stops to glance back and check that I’m still there. I find it adorable. As if he would freak out if he lost sight of me, just like when I lose sight of him. He sniffs around in a pile of leaves, getting one stuck to his nose. It makes me laugh and he glances back at the noise I make. I swear I see him smile.
It reminds me of the first time we met—a glass barrier between us. Both young and naïve and small. The only puppy with black and white fur, already an outcast in his small clan.
I played with him, put my face into his, and stared into his eyes, desperate for any sort of connection. He licked my nose over and over, confident in his plea like he rehearsed it a million times. He was on sale, already older than he should be. My clearance puppy.
We only make it about a fourth of the normal distance before he starts coughing. His breathing gets faster, and his tongue is flailing. He starts falling behind, moving slower than ever. He looks up at me with his usual request—Let’s keep going. But I pick him up, hold him close, and carry him back home.
I let him lay on the couch with me after. I’m not supposed to let him on the furniture, but I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about the extra heat as his body intertwines with my legs. I don’t care how loud he snores when he sleeps. I feel his heartbeat, and it’s the only thing that matters to me.
I sometimes catch him staring into space when he first wakes up. He doesn’t realize I see it, but he looks lost. It’s like he doesn’t believe it’s real, him still having me here, watching him as he dreams.
We only have three more days. I’m leaving in three days.
I’m crying again, listening to the dog wheeze, realizing how bad his cough sounds.
He was meant to be a friend. A companion to keep me busy while my parents worked, and my siblings moved away. There were years I cherished him, and years I forgot about him. There were moments I resented him, and moments I loved him more than I loved myself.
My sadness and frustrations become clear to me. The time I’ve lost and forgotten, moments fleeting before I can even grasp them. Hopelessness, and the reality of things I can’t control. A world I don’t recognize. A dog preparing to die.
His breathing finally calms, and mine starts to as well. I place my hand on his head and he reaches up, rubbing his face into my palm. We stare at each other, brown and green eyes opposing one another. He sees me as I see him—lives parallel to one another. One that will go on without the other.
We will say goodbye in three days. A goodbye forever, just in case. I’ll get a call, eventually, maybe in a month or two. And when I do, I’ll walk to the prettiest place I can find. Someplace you can watch the sunset.
I’ll think about the trail and the old snoring dog. The black and white puppy in the kennel with a silly-looking grin, and the little girl who picked him. I’ll laugh, just a little, remembering how I gave him a middle name. Bacon.
Cooper Bacon Ellison. What a name.