by Jeff Dosser
It was springtime in Oklahoma, tornado season and, since pulling off the highway for home, Mike had begun seeing signs of a storm’s passing. Leaves lay like scattered tiles across the roadway, the broken branches and bent fences a testament to the storm’s destruction.
“Look out!” Jan gestured from the passenger seat to the dark road ahead. “There’s a branch down on the right.”
Mike squinted past the clacking wipers and fogged windshield and eased them around not a branch but the extended arm of a toppled tree. A pair of electric utility trucks sat parked beside it, their strobing yellow lights setting the neon-vested workers aglow.
“I hope we weren’t hit,” Jan said, tiredly. “I just wanna go to bed.”
It had been an exhausting flight from San Francisco: meeting with distant friends, then Greg’s funeral the following day. Mike still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that his friend was gone.
Though they’d not seen each other for years, he and Greg had stayed in touch and even planned on getting together upon Greg’s retirement next fall. As his high-beams bored a passage through the cathedral of night, the familiar landmarks of home ticked off in his head; the metal fence with its star of bright-blue reflectors, the trunk of the giant cottonwood like an alabaster monolith beneath the headlight’s glow, then his wood post mailbox and the leaning red reflector of home.
It had always been his and Jan’s dream to find a place in the country, not too far from work, yet surrounded by the living things they loved. When Jan found a lot backing to Thunderbird Falls state park, they’d leapt at the opportunity and built the home they’d always wanted: something simple yet nestled into the boughs of the surrounding woods. Mike had even cut a walking trail through the brushy undergrowth, a half-mile track meandering between thick clusters of oak and the fragrant dark branches of cedars.
“I don’t see any damage,” Jan said, as they pulled in, “but I think we lost power.”
Mike clicked the garage door opener with no results. “I think you’re right.” With one hand gripped to the damp metal doorframe, he stepped out. “I’ll open ’er up, and you pull us in.”
The air was thick with the rain-heavy scent of earth and the sharp green aroma of broken branches and scattered leaves. Fumbling his key into the lock, Mike clicked open the deadbolt and stepped inside.
The darkness of the house was complete, and, for an instant, Mike considered going back for his phone or the glovebox flashlight. He opted, instead, to navigate the familiar maze of furniture without them.
He’d almost made it to the kitchen before barking his shin on an ottoman that a grandkid must have moved while they were away. Stumbling forward, Mike reached blindly to catch himself and smacked hard against the cool smoothness of the kitchen’s marble counter, causing a papery shuffle of letters to hit the floor at his feet.
Adjusting to the darkness, Mike’s eyes revealed the scattered pile of pale rectangles laying between the ebon shadow of the dining room table and spindle-legged chairs beside it. Scooping up the envelopes, he stacked them on the counter before continuing his passage to the garage.
Feeling blindly for the doorknob, he shoved the door open before stepping into the musky kennel stink of dogs and the excited rattle of their cages as they whined in the darkness for release.
“All right, you two,” he said with a smile, “hang on.”
Leaning down, Mike’s hand landed on the dog crate’s thin metal bars before working the latches free. The door burst open as the warm bulk of first Bo, and then Jack, raced into the garage.
“All right, calm down, calm down.” Reaching out like a blind man, he patted the slick, smoothness of their flanks and received, in exchange, the wet familiarity of slobbery licks and damp, cold noses.
Waving his hands in the darkness, Mike inched across the garage until he felt the garage door’s emergency release dangling from the ceiling. With a tug at its hard-plastic handle and the metal clack of the latch’s release, the door groaned on its springs, rising enough for the dogs to scramble beneath. The stilted shadows of their legs paced back and forth beneath the headlight’s glare. Mike took hold and swung the door open before waving Jan in.
“I didn’t see Jack,” she said, stepping from the car. Her gaze drifted from the empty crates to the shadows racing across the lawn. “Did you let ’em both out?”
“Soon as the door was open, they took off.” Mike shook his head and chuckled. “I guess they really had to go.”
Jan unloaded the luggage, and Mike hauled the generator from its spot in the garage’s dusty corner and plugged it into the fuse box. With a press of the button, it clattered to noisy life and with a flick of the switch, the garage lights flared to life.
A moment later, Jan poked her head through the back door. “I’m gonna take a shower and crawl into bed.” Her lips quivered into a tired smile. “Are you all right?”
Mike’s eyes drifted to the dark bulk of their metal shop standing sentry at the edge of the light. Inside, he kept several jugs of gasoline. “I need to make sure the generator’s gassed up before I head to bed,” he said, “then I’ll join ya.”
Jan produced his walking stick and leaned it beside the door then set his weathered rainjacket on top. “Why don’t you take the boys for a walk?” She smiled. “After the flight and being penned up in those crates, I’m sure you all could use it.”
With the gas cans located and the generator filled, Mike retrieved his walking stick before knotting the raincoat sleeves around his waist. He strolled into the front yard and gave a whistle. From the corner of the house, Bo loped into view and parked his chunky, brown butt at Mike’s feet and looked up eagerly with soulful dark eyes.
“Where’s your pal?” Mike leaned over and scruffed Bo’s head. He straightened, clapping his hands together with sharp, flat smacks. “Hey, Jack, come here, boy.” His eyes searched the line of trees marking the border between the trimmed civility of their yard and the unbridled wilderness beyond.
“Oh, there you are.” He spotted Jack’s lean brown shadow darting between columns of oaks and race onto the trail.
Mike leaned down and gave Bo’s rump a pat. “Come on, boy,” he called as he headed after Jack, “or he’ll leave us behind.”
Even without illumination, Mike strode the midnight trail with confidence, feeling his way along the familiar sandy path as surely as he would the contours of his wife’s body.
Only fifty-eight years old, and Greg was gone. Mike paused to glance back through the trees, the lights of home twinkling between the branches. No long bout with cancer, like his brother, no unexpected accident like the one which had claimed Jan’s mother. He’d simply been walking across the parking lot when his heart gave out.
He thought back to that rainy Wednesday afternoon and the text from Greg’s wife, Mary. Mike had been stressing about an upcoming project and his granddaughter, Gracie’s, broken arm when his phone had pinged with a group text. When he saw it included all his old friends, he knew the news wasn’t good: “Wanted to let everyone know, Greg was transported to the Zuckerberg ER. Will let you know when we have more news.”
Between the towering shadows of oaks and their uplifted boughs, Mike caught glimpses of stars, razor-sharp against a rain-washed sky.
After the text, Greg’s son had called with news his father was gone. Just like that. Mike remembered staring out the window with the intellectual coldness one experienced upon hearing about some far-away catastrophe and the resultant death of thousands.
On the way home that night, his thoughts drifted to Greg’s Superbowl party in their senior year of college. Everyone showed up only to discover the electricity had been shut off because Greg’s roommate had forgotten to pay the bills. They’d listened to the game on the radio, talking and drinking beer by candlelight until late into the night.
On the day Greg’s son was born, he’d called to give Mike the good news. Only the day before, Mike discovered Jan was pregnant with their first. They’d discussed their hopes and fears of parenthood for hours. And with each thread of memory, Greg’s loss was stitched onto the fabric of Mike’s heart.
Pausing at a fallen log, he took a seat on its rough bark while the dogs roamed out before him as invisible as wraiths. Only the sound of their snuffling through the underbrush or their pounding rhythmic footfalls as they cantered past gave any hint they were there at all.
In his youth, Mike considered death a vagary, a theoretical menace affecting others but not him. It was the sudden car crash, or weird tumor, the unlikely lottery ticket which claimed the unlucky or the stupid.
Yet, as the long, slow years stretched out behind him and he’d watched that slow dark tide wash across grandparents and uncles, the icons of his youth... and now Greg, it seemed his mortality was no longer a distant relic, but a certainty lying somewhere along the dark trail ahead.
Mike dug into his jacket and found a couple of dog treats. Giving a sharp whistle, he fisted them in his hand. “Jack! Bo! Come here, come on.”
A pair of shadows raced up, and Mike opened his hands. Bo lapped sloppily at his left hand, snatching the snack from his palm and dropping to his haunches to crunch noisily at the treat. Jack only nuzzled at his right, then stalked into the shadows leaving the goody behind.
“Hey, where ya goin’?” Mike tossed the snack after him and waited.
A shadow slunk to the spot and soon the treat was being crunched in darkness. Mike reached out to the shadow but instead of Jack’s lean frame, he found Bo’s chubby stoutness beneath his caress.
With a shake of his head, he groaned to his feet and set off once again.
In the depths of his mind, Mike thought working towards a dream might somehow safeguard him from the reaper’s blow. As if the work might grant immunity until its completion. Yet Greg’s dreams hadn’t saved him. His half-restored Mustang awaited in the garage, his trip to China with Mary and the kids would never come to be. All his aspirations counted for nothing when his number came due.
As the lights of home swam into view, Mike laughed at the foolishness of his illusion, his mind accepting the logic of death’s inevitability, yet, at the same time, flinching from that truth.
At the open garage door, he put his fingers to his lips and gave a long, shrill whistle. Two shades bounded into view, but only Bo panted up and dropped down beside him. Jack paused instead at the wood’s edge, his eyes gleaming in the darkness. Then he turned and disappeared among the trees.
After several more calls, it became clear that Jack had no intention of being locked in his crate. Mike gave Bo a smack on the rump and sent him after his friend.
“You two better not wake me up barkin’ at deer,” he called as Bo sped into the night.
The next morning, Mike woke to the smell of hot coffee and fried eggs. When he shuffled into the kitchen, he found Jan behind the counter, a steaming coffee mug in her hand.
“I’m sorry about Jack,” she said, her eyes brimming suddenly with tears. “Did Bo miss him on your walk?”
Mike dropped into his seat, blinking at her stupidly. “Jack?” He looked over his shoulder towards the front door. “What do you mean, you’re sorry about Jack?”
Jan cocked her head, confused. “Didn’t you read Lori’s note?”
Mike’s brows narrowed.
“It was on top of the mail.” She nodded to the counter where the scattered envelopes lay. “I... I thought you saw.”
Mike snatched up the hand-scrawled message laying on top.
Daddy, I’m so sorry about Jack. He chased a deer into the road and was hit. Gracie tried to stop him, but you know how he gets when he’s after a deer. She said he didn’t suffer. We took him to the vet but....
“That... that can’t be.” Mike lowered the note and peered out the window to where Bo sat alone on the porch, looking in.
Copyright © 2021 by Jeff Dosser