She walked more slowly now.
I noticed her steps were more hesitant, more calculated than when she visited a few weeks ago, and though I had walked beside her on the grass, panting under an unusually warm winter sun, she had barely noticed me, so concentrated on the path before her that everything else seemed to slip out of thought.
I didn’t mind; it was a part of our nature to notice these things, to be attentive to their needs and remember for them that time was changing when they refused to acknowledge it themselves.
Deep wrinkles creased her skin, and she walked with an ache that seemed to run the length of her body as she shuffled rubber-soled shoes across the asphalt. I would have felt those same lingering aches, I was certain, if I had lived past puppyhood.
She gripped the stems of tulips in an arthritic hand for a husband I had seen her bickering with on constant occasion. Charlie was the one I favored here. He’d smoke his cigar and grunt his wisdom and reach down to scratch that special spot right at the base of my tail until I was writhing with joy, snorting into the ground, ass hanging in the air.
Yeah. Charlie was alright.
As I basked in the sun, reveling in the scratched blades of grass on my back, their words would trail along the air until they reached my ears. Words of a younger love, a different time, words of war and goodbye and promises made and promises kept…
I’d sworn to love my humans for all my life, though I’d known others who ran away or got lost or were taken in by another family, pledging their allegiance to them instead. The German Shepherd who actually claimed to come from Germany, the Bischon who didn’t care who he was with as long as his porterhouse steak was cut up into tiny bits every evening, the Poodle who bragged about the salon her new family took her to, showing off a haircut that no self-respecting dog would be proud of.
Purebred snobs. Each and every one of them.
No, I wouldn’t forget who I loved.
Neither would she.
Now, I watched as she entered through the wrought-iron gates, stumbling on the cemetery path and almost dropping the flowers in her hands. I picked my head up, my body alert and ready to run to the rescue at any second.
“You okay there, Maggie?”
The voice came from a woman decked in blue coveralls, a red bandana wrapped around her hair. She sat on a low wall behind me that divided the sections of the cemetery, one leg propped up, boredom etched across her young face.
“Just missed a step, Martha,” Maggie waved her away. “No need to fuss.”
Maggie took another step; I trotted over, prepared to commence my duty as her guide for the rest of the way.
Charlie will thank me. I thought of the belly rub that awaited me.
But wait, she was eyeing me curiously, the puzzlement shading her features as she studied me. Sure, I wasn’t much to look at: my fur had been white at one point, but layers of dirt had turned it a hazy shade of brown. And, sure, I wasn’t a Golden Retriever or a fancy Bouvier – I was a mutt through and through — but if I cocked my head to the side just right – just right – and caught their gaze with big brown eyes, hearts would melt and the cooing would begin.
I cocked my head to the side; she frowned, partial distrust still in her eyes.
I’m a lover, not a biter, sweetheart.
I edged away to create some distance between us just the same.
“Hi, kids.” She smiled for the first time that afternoon as we approached two teenagers lounging on the dry grass near a small headstone. The boy was nonchalantly poking at the earth with a broken tree branch and oh, how that branch looked like it needed to play. “Who’s my friend here?”
“Cupid.” I perked my head up at my name and turned to the girl, but then the boy waved the stick, catching my attention, and I leapt, just missing it as he pulled it away. I glared at him. “Got hit by a car a month ago,” I heard Caitlin say. “Poor dog. Jimmy, don’t be an ass.”
“And he’s here now?”
“Just kinda showed up.”
I may be a lover, but this kid was going to get it if he didn’t let me have that stick…I let out a whine before throwing it into a bark.
“I see. Any idea where my dearly departed husband is?”
Jimmy touched my nose with the edge of the stick; I waited before snatching it in my mouth and pulling it out of his hands, smugly laying it down beneath my paws as I munched on the bark.
“Janie roped him into playing hide and seek by the mausoleum.”
“My grump of a husband playing hide and seek? That man will never cease to surprise me…Which mausoleum, dears, the Fosters’?”
“Nah,” Caitlin said, picking at the frayed ends of her shoelaces. “Mr. Foster’s still cranky from the last time they woke him up when all that flooding happened. The Fletcher mausoleum on the south side. Need help? Jimmy’ll go with you.”
“No, no, I’ll manage. You two take care now.”
As she slowly shuffled down the walk, my gaze lingered on her. I wanted to follow – it was my duty to follow – but I finally had this precious, perfect stick and I didn’t want to give it up. Especially not to that boy. I put my head down, covering it protectively.
“Ever wonder what it’s like getting old like that?”
“I dunno. Never had the chance.” Jimmy’s eyes narrowed as he watched me; I met his stare, unwavering.
“But what do you think that’s like?” Caitlin continued. “I mean, you’re together for years and years and years and then suddenly you’re alone again and all you have left is the love you had for them.”
Keep it up, kid. I can go all day.
“I mean, OK, so Maggie’s lucky because technically she still has Charlie, even though he’s, you know, dead. But not everyone can see the dead.” She paused. “Do you think that’s what it’s gonna be like for me?”
“I meant yeah, yes.” Jimmy looked up at her. “Yes. It’ll probably be like that for you, too; you know, not having to miss them and stuff.”
I cocked my head to one side, ear twitching. For a second I could have sworn he knew what I was thinking. I blinked; he raised his eyebrows.
Caitlin pulled her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on her arms. She looked lost in thought, and I wanted to go over and nuzzle her hand. But Jimmy was there, he was one of them, or as close as could be, being dead. Maybe he was what she needed.
I looked between the two. Jimmy stared at me. I put my head in my paws.
You’re an idiot.
I seemed to say that a lot to this kid.
You’re dead. She’s alive. She can see you. How much more of her time are you gonna waste? Make your move or move on, buddy…
Jimmy glanced to his left, then inched closer to Caitlin, his arm sliding along the rough fabric of her army jacket as he reached his arm around her…
“What’re you doing?”
“Nothing. Cupid told me to.”
Caitlin glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “The dead dog told you to feel me up?”
I grabbed the stick in my mouth and scampered down the path after Maggie.
On the south side of the cemetery, Maggie and Charlie were watching the teenagers with a smile.
“Do you think that’s young love?”
Charlie chuckled and took a puff of his cigar; the smoke dissipated in the air and I raised my nose to catch its lingering scent.
“One’s dead and the other’s living, Sweetheart.” He paused and glanced down at the stick that I dropped at his feet; I backed up and sat down to wait patiently. “They don’t stand a chance — not for a long while, anyway.”
“You’re dead and I’m alive. And we’re still in love after 47 years.”
“Seventy-one.” Charlie glanced sideways at his wife, his eyes twinkling in amusement. “Places like this, we’re allowed to count the dead ones.”
“Seventy-one years with a grumpy old man,” Maggie’s smile softened her face, and for a moment I could see what she must have been like, making those promises when time seemed fixed, back in her early bloom of youth.
Charlie stepped in closer and put an arm around her small body; she rested her head against his chest. I settled into the grass, the stick forgotten at his feet, content to just watch them – these humans who seemed to know how the heart should beat.
“That’s the thing about love, Sweetheart. Sometimes, not even death can do us part.”