She is one of eight. Eight balls of sandy fur rolling over each other in the whelping box, eyes not yet open. Your mom asks, “What about that one?” and points to a snoozing Labrador with a pink collar, immune to the chaos of whines and blind stumbling. Leaning into the box, the owner scoops up the unconscious puppy and holds her scrunched up, dreamy little face next to yours.
You are one of one. Years and years before the visit to the whelping box, when you were in first grade, your friend from the bus told you that she had a twin brother and two older sisters. Something reared up inside of you, you didn’t know what, but it made you say that you had a sister, too. It took a few questions, but eventually the friend figured out you meant your dog. Eleven years later, on a long November night, that dog was euthanized on a cold metal table at the emergency vet in West Chester. Nine days before her pink-collared replacement was born in the whelping box.
She is nine weeks old when you bring her home. She whines in the car the whole way, and you rub her neck and her belly, but still she cries.
You are seventeen. For that whole first weekend together, you’ve requested time off from your cashier job to ensure that you don’t miss a thing. Her button nose brushes the furniture, sharp teeth find your fingers, and anytime she pees you grip her warm belly and shift her onto a piece of crinkly newspaper. When she curls up to sleep, you wrap her in the paw print blanket your best friend’s mom made, and your mom says, “Take it off, the dog has fur.” Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, and your puppy doesn’t bat an eyelid either way.
She gets a sister in March, a puppy from the same litter who hasn’t found a family yet. The sister is less spoiled, not overweight as the first-held has become. While your family has always had a dog, you’ve never had two at once. So you are surprised, and a little ashamed, when you discover that you have a favorite.
Your cousin, who’s been living with you and your parents since her divorce last year, moves out and takes her two cats with her. After the cats are gone, you notice your dog stretching out on her belly the way the cats used to, legs splayed behind her. This is called frogging. Her sister, who didn’t get to spend as much time with the cats, does not frog, and so it becomes your dog’s signature pose. When the heat of summer descends, she frogs on the cool concrete of the porch until she goes out to roll in the freshly cut grass and tinge her light fur with green.
That summer, she and her sister leave for dog school so that they can learn to fetch ducks for your dad. They won’t be home until the fall.
You leave for college that August. You’re not supposed to move back home after that.
She disappears into the brush.
You haven’t disappeared yet, though you will. Right now, you are at the top of a small mountain in western Pennsylvania, the same one you’ve been visiting since you were a kid. Freshman year of college behind you, it’s the Saturday before Memorial Day, and already stuffy summer air closes around you like the terror squeezing your heart. When your dad shouts for her and there’s no movement, the words whatifyouneverseeheragain stream through every vessel in your body. Your eyes blur. The trees are leafy and the brush is dense, and you can’t hear anything over your dad shouting: “Bailey! No!” Then suddenly, like she’s materialized out of the earth, your dog is back. Trotting up to you with the smuggest grin on her face. Covered in porcupine quills.
She and her sister go hunting with your dad. She likes to swim, so she becomes the duck retriever. Her sister, who likes to run, is the pheasant retriever.
On a freezing January day, you are going to the airport, London-bound for a semester abroad. You cry when you say goodbye to her, and your mom talks about it for years afterward, saying, “When Mellisa left for London she cried saying goodbye to the dog.”
Most evenings, after you get home from work, she brings a toy into your room. This is after college, after you moved back home, after your first job ended in a layoff but before the second one ended with a plane ticket. Shredded down to a strip of brown fabric, the preferred toy has been through a lot: taut between your hand and her mouth for tug of war, dangling from your fingers as you dash into the hallway followed by her clicking paws, gripped by her teeth when the chase shifts. Eventually, she gets tired and just chews it, and you look at plane tickets again, which has become your go-to activity for post-work therapy.
On the morning you leave, you take a picture of her frogging where she always frogs, in the warm slant of sunlight that spills into your bedroom. Over and over on the plane ride to Auckland, you unlock your phone, open the photo app, look at your dog, close the app, and lock your phone. Over and over, waiting for water to boil in the hostel kitchen and riding the InterCity bus to the next town and drinking hot chocolate by yourself in a cafe and in between all the big moments in New Zealand—between the mountain tramping, the skydiving, the snowboarding—you look at the image of her going about her morning as usual. She didn’t know how long you’d be gone, but if you could’ve told her, how would you have said it? I love you. I’m just going away for a bit. I feel weird and displaced, and somehow I think feeling more weird and displaced will help. I love you. Don’t rip up the toy too much.
A memory: seeing Marley & Me at the Regal in Brandywine with your parents and best friend. When Marley died and his owner flashed back to their life together, dog and human, you curled up in your seat as though that could hide the loud sobs that escaped your lungs. Now you wonder, what will it look like, one day when you look back? The summer before college you didn’t spend together, the semester in London, the year traveling by yourself. In between, porcupines and mountains, beach trips and tug of war, naps and a cold nose in your face, but always you are moving on, moving away. Maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe any sane being can recognize the importance of living her own life. But maybe this really is the best dog in the world, and the years are running out.
She likes Ridley Creek State Park, where she can slip into the muddy water and cool off during your summer walks. Trotting along the dirt trails or the paved walkway, she drags you forward by her leash, panting loudly and wagging her tail. She has that silly dog grin, and everyone smiles back at her. One woman even stops to say, “She’s so happy!” as your dog lifts her big dark eyes in greeting.
Now that you’re back, Ridley Creek also becomes your happy place. During the week, you update spreadsheets for lazy people at your job and hang pictures on the white walls of your new apartment. On the weekends, you visit home and take your favorite dog to the park. Your usual trail crosses a thin arm of the creek and climbs a steep hill, winding through cool woodland before descending sharply down to the main waterway. Often, you remember New Zealand, tramping through beech forest with the throaty calls of fantails and tuis floating from the silver branches. One day, a fallen tree blocks the way up the first hill. Branches sprout thickly along the horizontal trunk, and she can’t jump over. So you go around. You don’t know if the hive came down with the tree, or if it’d been a ground nest disturbed by the fall. You don’t even see the bees, just feel the piercing stings on your legs and hear buzzing in the air. Normally, she’s pulling you ahead, but now she lags behind as you dash up the hill. The bees trail her while she trails you, and a few latch onto her, which you find when you’re finally free and can stop to catch your breath. She seems confused, simultaneously whining and wagging her tail, as you drag the squirming bees out with your nails. You tell her she’s a good dog and take her home. Guilt burrows into your skin over all the things you missed when you were running.
Your mom takes you to urgent care, where they ask what kind of bees they were (you don’t know) and prescribe antibiotics.
Your dad takes the dog to the vet so that she can get shots and her own set of doggie meds. That evening, you pretend to notice the difference between wine samples at a cousin’s birthday party before your mom drops you off at your apartment.
New Zealand is almost nine thousand miles away, and it feels like it, as you get ready for bed and for another week of spreadsheets. Where did it all go, the heavy backpack and the lively hostels, the green mountainside and the beat of an alpine parrot’s wings? Why did you come home?
Your dog is forty miles away, but it feels farther, like she’s on the moon. Like she’s on the moon battling moon-monsters, because you left her there. Why had she fallen behind? Was she confused, or had she gotten tired going uphill? Was she trying to protect you? Why didn’t you go back home with your mom, where you and your dog could have fallen asleep sore and itchy together?
She stands at the side of the bed, waiting.
You tell her to at least put her two front paws up.
She waits a beat.
You tell her please, she really has to put her front paws up.
She groans and puts one paw on the bed, then the other, and hoists her front half up while wagging her tail.
You sigh, scramble out from under the covers, pick up her heavy back end, and shove her onto the bed.
She curls up where you just were.
Her sister springs up onto the pillows, and that’s how you know that your dog isn’t too old, she’s just the spoiled one.
Whenever someone pats her head, she tolerates it for a few seconds and then pulls away, as though she’s annoyed at being treated like such a pet. But if you rub her neck or her belly, her tail swishes, tapping against the wall or knocking a cup from a low coffee table, and maybe it’s because she’s remembering how you comforted her that first day, taking her home in the car.
Whenever someone congratulates you on the new job, you feel like a fraud: you’re going to leave again. Not wholly disappear—you’ll come back a few times a year to visit—but it will be a longer, multi-year odyssey. By the time you settle back home, she’ll be gone. GONE. Sometimes, she still trails you, toy in teeth, as if to say, Remember? Remember how we played when we were young and you needed comforting? I’m not young anymore. But I’m still here.
When you’re stressed or distracted, you don’t always feel like playing. But her dark eyes plead with you, the ragged old toy hangs out of her mouth, and you know that having a dog is the only relationship where you can get away with taking so much. One sign and they’re yours forever. Then you’re too far, too fast, and too loved by someone who will only live for a fraction of the time that you do.
So you grab the toy and run, wishing you could always hear the drum of her paws following you wherever you go.
© Mellisa Pascale
Mellisa Pascale is from southeastern Pennsylvania. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Elsewhere Journal, Soft Star Magazine, and City Creatures Blog. She holds a Master of Art in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is studying for her Master of Philosophy in Medieval Language and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.