This story is by Annie Clement and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The beautiful canopy of blazing gold, bronze, and copper trees lining our drive rustled in the wind as I walked toward the house. I used to find comfort in the warmth of an October morning, when the air was cold enough to sting as I drew in each breath, while the heat from the sun served as a reminder that Winter had yet to win her battle. But, nothing was giving me the comfort I so desperately sought.
I walked alone, feeling as withered as the leaves that had fallen to the ground, trying to accept the solitude lying ahead of me. My cell phone rang, interrupting my mourning. I stopped to look at the caller ID. I knew if I didn’t answer, she would continue calling until I did.
“Mom, are you OK?”
“Yes,” I answered in as convincing of a voice as I could muster.
“Do you want to go to breakfast first?”
“No,” I said, “I’ll just meet you at the funeral home.”
Silence filled our conversation; neither of us had to say anything. That word, Funeral, said it all.
“Mom,” Debbie finally said, “We love you.”
I knew every time he deployed that it could end in Full Military Honors, but I always pushed the nagging thought to the deepest corner of my mind. Yet, here I was, sinking into this horrible abyss that I couldn’t push into the shadows. Had I not been so consumed with avoiding the dark reality of the moment, I might have found the ceremony very beautiful. I sat by his grave site, watching the leaves dance their final dance to the grass below in rhythm with the bugler’s lonely call to rest. Debbie had to nudge me when the young Marine presented a very tightly and neatly folded American flag to me. I hesitated – taking that flag meant never again would I feel his soft kiss on my lips or hear his soothing voice pulling me from the brink of anger. Never again would I wake to his arms around, making me feel so safe, so secure. Never again would I stand next to him feeling butterflies in my stomach as I looked him up and down in Full Dress Uniform. Never… Final, that’s what taking the flag meant.
As I turned away from Jack’s grave to return to the limousine, I noticed him for the first time. He sat beautifully with his head held high, chest puffed out, front legs straight and tail very still. He was a proud soldier waiting to be released from his post, staring at me as if I were the one to release him. I thought nothing of it until I saw him again at the reception. He was always near, but no too close. Every time I looked at him, he sat at attention as if he were waiting for me to give the next command.
“Ma’am?” a young soldier addressed me, “Can I get anything for you?”
“No, thank you,” I said, but before he could walk away, I asked, “Corporal, can you tell me whose dog that is?”
“He was the Colonel’s,” the Marine replied.
“That’s Zeus,” another voice from behind me said, “He became Jack’s buddy these past few months.”
I turned to face Brigadier General Mark Cramer.
“Hello, Linda,” he said as he took my hands in his and kissed my cheek. “How ya holding up?”
“I’m standing,”I answered, attempting to smile. “Mark, Jack never mentioned a dog in any of his letters or during our phone conversations. When did he get a dog?”
“He didn’t,” Mark answered. “Zeus was assigned to one of the men under Jack’s command. Unfortunately, Zeus’s handler was killed in action. Jack took Zeus under his wings until HQ decided what to do with him. Zeus was supposed to be put up for adoption last month, but Jack had grown attached to him. When the boys finally reached Jack that day, Zeus was laying on top of him, shielding him for further fire, and he wouldn’t leave Jack’s side at the hospital. A veterinarian had to be brought to the hospital to examine Zeus, but he wouldn’t let anyone near him or Jack except Jack’s doctor and nurse. When Jack passed, Zeus finally allowed them to tend to his own wounds.”
“What happens to Zeus now?” I asked.
“Jack had asked about adopting Zeus himself. If you’re interested, I can see what we can do to leave Zeus with you.”
While Mark continued to tell me what would happen if I did not want to adopt Zeus, Zeus sat at attention beside me, as if someone had told him that his new post was at my side instead of Jack’s. It seemed as if the dog knew I was Jack’s wife the whole time and was just waiting for someone to introduce us. For the remainder of the reception, Zeus never left my side. He even stood sentry outside the ladies room a few times.
As my son, his wife, and I prepared to leave the reception, Zeus laid at my feet and let out the smallest of whimpers, like he was asking to come with us.
“C’mon, Zeus,” Jack Junior said, “You’re coming home with us.”
Zeus didn’t move, though. He just laid there looking at me.
“Jack?” I asked.
“Mom, Zeus was wounded trying to save Dad’s life. He can’t go to some stranger after taking a few bullets for Dad.”
I looked at the dog wondering whether he, too, was suffering from losing Jack. I nodded to Zeus, and he finally stood to follow us.
I had just sat down with my cup of tea later that evening, thinking about everything and nothing at all when the phone rang.
“Mom,” Jack yelled. “Zeus is gone.”
“What do you mean…?” I began to ask when I heard it – the scratching at the door, the quiet whine, and the panting. I opened the front door to find Zeus lying on our porch, waiting to be let in.
“I don’t know how he found his way here, but he did,” I said.
Jack and Debbie arrived twenty minutes later expecting to take Zeus home with them. Zeus, though, had other plans. He sat in front of the living room sofa and would not move.
I sat on the floor beside him and said, “This isn’t going to work, Zeus.”
He let out a heavy sigh, dropped his head to his chest, and lifted his eyes to look at me.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot be your new owner.”
He sighed again while placing one of his paws on my lap.
“I’m not in a good place right now,” I continued. “You should be with someone who can comfort you and console you through this; I can’t comfort anyone right now. I can’t even comfort myself. I go through every day fighting to dress, pushing myself to eat, to drink, to shower. How can I take care of a dog when I don’t even feel like taking care of myself?”
I looked at Zeus, and for a moment, I saw what I guessed Jack saw in his eyes – That unspoken oath declaring, “I’m here for you.” I looked away, afraid to acknowledge that I understood his message.
“I think you would be happier living with Jack Junior and Debbie,” I said.
Zeus laid down and rolled over onto his side. Without thinking, I started rubbing his belly. Zeus wrapped his paws around my arm like he was hugging it.
“Very well,” I conceded, “Just for tonight. Tomorrow, you go to live with Jack and Debbie.”
Zeus sat up, put his paw on my shoulder, and licked the side of my face.
That night, for the first time since I received the call telling me Jack had been wounded, I slept comfortably. I had wonderful dreams about the days gone by where Jack and I would walk every morning, finding delight in the world around us. But in my dreams, Zeus walked with us.
When I woke the next morning, Zeus was laying against my back. I felt safe once again, and it was a welcomed feeling. I turned onto my back and looked at the ceiling.
“I won’t love you,” I said.
Zeus put his head on my stomach, sighed, and rolled his eyes toward mine.
Zeus walked with me that morning. I talked about Jack, how we met and fell in love, how it hurt every time he was deployed, and how my world fell apart the night I was told Jack died. I felt comforted, and my healing began.
Zeus has walked with me every morning since. I didn’t want to fall in love again, but then Zeus walked into my life. I will forever be grateful that he did.