This story is by Erik Porter and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The distinct “yip” followed by a familiar ”arf” woke Aaron from his restless sleep. The recurring dream had never been so aurally vivid but it always started his day in angst. He propped himself against the front door to relieve the ache in his hip caused by the wood porch planks where he had made his bed for the past week. With cold fall weather setting in, even the down sleeping bag he wrestled from the packed shelves in the garage added little comfort. Breathing in the crisp air that fought the warm morning sun, Aaron scrubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Comfortable, yet dingy, outdoor furniture sat feet away. Even the mug from Donna’s last day at home waited on the side table. He wasn’t ready to sit there. Not yet.
The porch remained as a special place the three of them shared on weekend mornings watching the neighborhood activities. They exchanged waves with friends and the occasional stranger, but only Donna ever offered a wave to their elderly neighbor who tended to ignore the friendly gesture. Donna stopped waving a couple of years ago. Perhaps after ten years she had given up on the woman, but Aaron would still catch Donna smile as if she expected the neighbor to join them for Sunday coffee.
Just looking at the wicker furniture flooded his head with so many memories. Now one of them was gone forever and the other was lost.
“I’ll keep him safe for you,” he promised her.
“Keep him safe for you,” she said.
The events of the past week stole his focus, which didn’t help him work up the courage to tackle another day.
He would never forget the smell of urine and feces or the overwhelming cacophony of barking, whimpering, whining and yelping from the other side of the rusty steel door that had provided the briefest moment of hope. Someone could have found him. Someone could have turned him in. He had lost all hope even before reaching the last row of cages.
A cold wind swirled down the street sending the fallen leaves onto the tiny front lawns and out again into the gutter. Every small pile of leaves reminded Aaron of Winston’s brown fur with tinges of red. The many hiding places only increased with additional camouflage of autumn’s dying leaves.
His hopeful gaze about the neighborhood caught a flutter of white. The large type, unreadable from this distance, and distinct photo stood out as a stray flyer floated down the street on the morning breeze.
His endeavor to post flyers followed the habitual path he and Winston walked each evening, past the hospital where Donna spent many days and ending at the park where the three of them had spent their weekend afternoons.. He followed the trail where he had scattered her ashes, just him and Winston. Stories about pets waiting at grave sites for their owners to return drew him back to the park every evening.
Another “yip” darted to his ears. He knew that sound. It was real and nearby.
Now he heard Winston’s bark come from his neighbor’s house. She didn’t have a dog. She avoided their Winston. His Winston? No, Winston would always be “theirs”. On Sunday mornings when the whole neighborhood enjoyed nice weather, she would scowl before hiding behind her newspaper whenever Winston barked hello to a passerby.
He approached her front stoop waiting for Winston to bark again. The closed drapes showed no sign his neighbor had risen for the day. Then the drapes moved enough to separate before a cheerful “arf” emanated from the house. He tore up the steps and pressed his face to the window scanning the interior for his dog.
The room was crowded with furniture but tidy. The briefest swish of a reddish brown tail flipped around a doorway as he watched his dog trot into the kitchen.
Aaron ran to the front door, banging furiously. “Hey! You’ve got my dog! Open the door! I want him back!”
Over the past week’s vigil, he noticed his neighbor kept late hours. As soon as he’d glance at her house, nearly reachable if leaning over the side of the porch, the drapes would flutter and the lights would flick off. He figured it must be a coincidence, but the feeling she was spying made him uneasy. Aaron always referred to her by some nasty nickname. Donna had cringed with each new iteration, doing her best to instill in him that Doris wasn’t like that at all. Why did she know her name, anyway?
He stopped pounding when the inside lights came on and he heard the deadbolt slide. The door inched open until it reached the extent of the security chain. A wrinkled, sleepy face stared through the opening.
“Why do you have my dog, lady? I want him back now!”
The woman tried to close the door, but Aaron pounded again keeping her from shutting him out. “It’s not your dog. Let me…”
“The hell it’s not! I just saw him through your window.”
“Aaron,” the neighbor said softly. “It’s my dog. Donna helped me adopt her.” Aaron pounded harder. “It’s not Winston!”
The mention of the two names that meant more to him than anything else in the world shut down his pounding. Aaron stumbled away from the door. How does she know their names?
Doris took the opportunity to close the door and free the chain. She emerged holding a smaller version of Winston in her arms.
Aaron shook his head trying to shake the jumble of confused thoughts into order. The color of its coat was identical down to Winston’s red highlights, but the dog in her arms had a smaller body and its left ear stood crookedly at attention. Winston had a pair of floppy ears.
The old woman tried to approach him, but Aaron backed away until he bumped against the porch’s support post.
“Please sit down,” she said motioning toward a pair of rockers neatly arranged on her porch.
Tears welled in Aaron’s eyes and his body shook as he shimmied down the post.
“I’ve lost the only thing she asked me to keep safe,” he said, tears flowing freely down his face. “I failed her.”
“She’d never believe that. Donna knows you love Winston as much as she did. That dog always had a mind of its own, you know.”
Aaron glared at this stranger through his tears. “You didn’t even know her. How would you know anything.”
Doris looked down. “She never told you,” she said quietly to herself.
“Told me what?”
“After my daughter died, your wife, sent the most beautiful bouquet. No one else around here even seemed to care, but your wife did.”
Aaron stared in silence. He wanted to speak yet no words would come.
“I failed her, too. Donna asked me to watch over you. I couldn’t even go to her funeral after all she did to help me find some happiness again.” She pulled the dog close, kissing the top of her head. “I loved that Donna needed me after her diagnosis but you know what? I still needed her more. It was as if I’d lost my own daughter all over again. ”
Aaron poured his face into his hands.
“We’ll find him Aaron, we will.” She started toward him, but Aaron edged away toward the porch steps.
A silver sedan zipped into an open space in front of their homes. Dressed in blue scrubs, a woman hopped out calling, “Are you the ones missing a dog?’
Aaron looked up, turning away from his neighbor toward this new arrival. “Yes, I am,” he said choking back more tears.
“I work down at Mercy and this dog has been sleeping in the bushes out front for a few days now.” She opened the rear door and a matted, dirty Winston hopped out, pulling hard on the leash when he spotted Aaron. “We were finally able to get a leash around him and a little girl recognized him from your flyers.”
Aaron fell to his knees as Winston made his way to him, propping both paws on Aaron’s shoulders so he could get in a good lick. He flopped in Aaron’s arms giving up his belly. Then he caught sight of the Doris’ puppy, and Winston scampered toward her to play.
Sunday afternoon tea became a new special time for the four of them. The dogs would play or sleep or beg for handouts. On cold or raining days Aaron and Winston would visit Doris, but on warm, sunny days, Aaron would host. His porch furniture had been refreshed, the small yard mowed and Aaron even found time to weed and replant the beds. Doris recounted the few memories she and Donna shared. Aaron enjoyed reminiscing with a new friend about the wonderful times he and Donna had in their short time together. With an occasional tear welling in his eyes, his smile beamed.