THE OLD MAN
He could hear the screen beat against the outer kennel door, as the snow laden wind raced across the patio. He knew he would have to trudge through frozen mounds, faltering on the ice underneath, just to find an open spot to relieve himself. And so he decided it was much better to stay warm for just a little longer inside and lying on his cot.
While he wasn’t sure what coaxed him awake, he began to notice a sort of bell-like tingling that almost sounded as if it was calling his name.
“Toby …” Yes, the bell, or voice, or whatever, was definitely calling him. “Toby, are you awake?”
The sharp pain of an old shoulder injury was quick to provide the answer. “Yes,” the old dog raised his head, “But who’s asking?”
“A friend Toby, and I was just checking on you.”
The old boy sighed heavily, shivering slightly, half from the cold, and half from the dull ache that now radiated from his hips. “I don’t have any friends anymore.” In sad resignation, he laid his head back down against his forearm.
“No, that’s not true Toby. I’m here, and I’m your friend.”
He stiffly arose and stretched, wincing from the pain and holding his breath for just a moment, letting it out slowly as he stepped from the fabric cot to the cold concrete floor. As the slumber cleared, sure enough, there in front of him was a little person – or it sort of looked like a person – and with a very bright and inviting smile. Gingerly, and with no little effort, Toby sat in front of his new friend.
“Who are you? You can’t be human, you’re too small. And, as well, while I don’t understand most of the noises people make, I do understand you. You don’t look right either, you’re all bright and sparkly … and I know for sure you’re not a dog.” He sniffed just a little to see what scent this “person” had, and found the air filled with the most delicious aroma of spice and gingerbread. He thought that peculiar too.
“Well, it’s a little hard to describe, so let’s just say that I’m your friend,” the person explained. “I’ve been with you for a very long time Toby, and I’ve watched you grow up. Now I’m here to take care of you, like I’ve always been. You just never noticed before.”
“You’ve been with me, eh?” With a sullen snort, he rose to his feet again, and then stepped back a few steps and sat. “If that’s so,” he muttered gravely while lowering his eyes, “then why am I here?” He could feel the urge to choke, but held back the tide of grief now welling inside of him.
“I know old man. I know what you feel now.” The voice was soft and comforting.
“How can you?” By now, the old boy was indignant. “Just because I’m old, doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart. Just because I can’t play ball any more, or chase rabbits in the yard, doesn’t mean I stopped being me.” The ache in his body was joined by the ache in his heart.
“Yes, most certainly, you are still young inside. But I fear you’ve lost hope, and without hope … well … without it, you’ll lose the most important part inside of you, and in the end, will lose all that really matters in life.”
The voice was so delicate and soothing, it made the moment quite surreal as Toby gazed around the barren chain link walls that surrounded him. It was nothing like the warm bed and soft blanket he had known in the years before. It took a moment before he could continue, “If you were there with me up until now,” Toby swallowed hard, “then tell me why I was brought here?”
“They didn’t know what to do with you.” It was almost a whisper, but cut through the chilled air like a spike! “They are afraid of death, you know, and though they loved you very much, they …”
“LOVE? How can you abandon someone and then claim to have loved them?” His anger flashed, “Love doesn’t turn you over to die alone!” For just a moment, a moan began and rose to a howl, as the stifling grief surged from the old boy’s heart.
A moment or two passed before either could speak. “As I was trying to say,” the person continued, “they just didn’t know how to deal with their own impending grief, and couldn’t bear to watch you pass away from them. And so, they brought you here, with the hope that someone else would be there for you in your last years.”
The old boy turned his head away as if to hide his anguish, “Didn’t they know I loved them too?”
“I’m not saying they were right Toby, I’m just telling you why they did what they did.”
“Well person, or whatever you are, there is little hope left for me here.” He turned and stepped heavily back to his bed, slumping upon it with a hopeless sigh.
“You don’t know that!” The scent had turned to incense, and the person’s aura to a pale blue.
“Look, I’m old. I have nothing to offer anyone,” he grumbled. “I have pain in my hips and my shoulder, my teeth are worn down, my coat is tattered, I can’t run and case anymore, and people want the young ones anyway, not old men like me.” His eyes fell, as he slowly rested his chin on the edge of the cot.
“You don’t know that for sure Toby. Hope is forever, and if you can just hold on to that one small spark, things really can change … I promise.”
At the end of the hallway, Toby could hear the door knob turn. It echoed against the grey cinderblock walls, and the creaking hinges gave notice someone was coming. A chorus of howling and barking began, as each kennel run erupted in an excited welcome … each run, that is, except one. The old boy just lay there no longer able to coax himself to join in.
Two people appeared through the opening. One Toby knew to be the kindly soul who cared for him each day, bringing him cold water, a bowl of food, and a few pets and pats to comfort him. And the other, he assumed, was here to choose a pup to take home. He’d seen it before, and as always, he would wag, and bark, and watch as another run was opened. Today he would just lie there, since there wasn’t much point in his view.
“Now get up and sit nicely here at your door,” Toby’s new friend said sternly.
“Why,” Toby moped?
“Because this man has come to choose a new companion, and he’ll never see you if you lie there all crumpled up as you are.”
“He’s not going to be interested in me.” Again, Toby could feel his heartache growing.
“You don’t know that, and you don’t know this man!” His new friend’s voice betrayed just a touch of annoyance. “Did you know that he is a widower?”
“No, how could I?”
“And did you know that his children have long since moved away from home? He’s been alone for years, and nobody ever comes to visit, for they are far too busy, with lives of their own.”
Toby sighed again, but rallied the strength to get up and move off the cot and to the front of his kennel run. “Gosh, I sure know how that feels when those you want to be with suddenly haven’t the time for you anymore.” He stood there looking down the corridor at the old man, who was inspecting every pup quite thoroughly as he shuffled past each run.
“He looks like he’s very lonely,” the old dog noted.
“Yes Toby, he is very lonely!”
The two stood side by side as the old man finally stopped at Toby’s run. Opening the gate, he reached down to the aged dog.
“I wonder what they’re talking about?” Toby looked down at his friend, whose aura had now turned golden as if to radiate kindness. “The old man’s eyes sure look sad, as if his heart was broken.”
“It is, and he has come to see if maybe someone here could fix that for him.”
Toby began to slowly wag his tail, and he raised his head just a little for the old man to reach him. “Well, at least I can give him a little kindness before he moves on to make his choice. I may not be able to give much, but I can at least let him know I understand.”
“Isn’t that enough Toby,” his friend nearly whispered?
The man slowly knelt before the old dog and began to massage his ragged coat with gentle and measured strokes. He began to talk, occasionally looking over his shoulder to the shelter lady.
“What is he saying,” Toby enquired?
“They’re talking about you.”
It felt warm and good to be touched and petted once again. “What sort of things?” Toby edged a bit closer to the old man, who put his arms around him and hugged him deeply.
“The lady is telling him that you’re old, and that you probably didn’t have more than one or two good years left. She said that your bones ache, and that you can’t run very well anymore.”
“Well … that is the truth.” Toby was basking momentarily in the old man’s attention. He knew the lady was right, and that his youth was well past, and that he was an old man himself. But it didn’t matter at that moment; all he knew was the tender kindness of the old man’s well-worn hands.
“She said that there were plenty of other, much younger, dogs in the shelter.”
“That’s ok, at least for now I can give him a little compassion to maybe brighten his day.” As the old man let go of Toby, he faltered for just a moment but slowly stood and joined the lady, talking and looking back at Toby as the two walked back through the kennel door.
Toby sighed heavily. “That was nice. He’ll make someone a wonderful companion.” The old dog lowered his eyes sadly and ambled back to his cot. He turned his head away from his little friend, and could feel the pain of his bones and his heart wash over him again.
“Ah Toby, the world isn’t always as it seems.”
Toby sniffed back his despair for a moment and shifted his eyes. His friend’s aura was now a lustrous greenish yellow, and the odor of cinnamon and nutmeg surrounded them. Toby suddenly felt a strange tinge of excitement, the sort that usually announces something quite wonderful is about to happen. It’s that moment of anticipation where you just know goodness is right around the corner, even though nothing has really changed.
“I know what you’re feeling, my friend.” The little person came closer. He wasn’t really walking, just sort of hovering, which Toby thought to be very unusual and definitely not something a human person would do. “It’s called hope!”
The momentary creak gave notice the door was opening, and sure enough, both the lady and the old man appeared once again.
Toby shifted his eyes toward them, not moving a muscle otherwise as he lay on his bed. Step by step, they came closer and closer to his kennel run, and stopping in front, the lady began to unlatch the latch.
Toby rose as quickly as an old dog can and stepped off of the cot. “What are they doing?”
“You’re going home Toby.”
He could hardly believe it! “Me! He really wants me?” Anguish was quickly replaced with excitement, and Toby began shivering ever so slightly in amazement.
“Yes, my boy, he really wants you. The old man made it very clear to the lady that he too was old, and he couldn’t run or chase, or even walk very far. A puppy or younger dog would surely be too much for him, and so he has chosen you. And besides, neither of you have all that many days left. And so those days may as well be together with someone to love.”
The old man knelt, and again grasped Toby’s ears and ran his hands deeply into the old boy’s mane. Toby could feel love pouring from the old man’s heart into his own. And as his new companion slipped a collar around his neck, Toby could hardly believe this time it would be his turn to walk out of the cold concrete run, out of the building, and into the warmth of a waiting car.
It was a short ride across the city, and soon the old dog was welcomed into a small cottage, part of a not much bigger subdivision, in a much older section of town. But Toby didn’t care. In fact, as the next two years passed, he grew more and more in love with the old man and his threadbare house. It was home, and that was all that mattered. Each day, rain or shine, the two of them would stroll slowly up the street to the park to watch the children and younger dogs play. Sometimes, on really rainy or cold afternoons, they would just sit together on the porch and pass the day smelling the cool musty breeze, listening to the chattering music of city life, and generally basking in the warmth of one another’s presence. It was a good life for a couple of old men, though age and time were not terribly kind to the both of them.
As winter drew close once again, and the Christmas season came calling, one night as Toby slept warm and cozy at the foot of the old man’s bed, the tingling voice of his small friend awakened him.
“Toby, wake up! It’s me.”
As the old dog raised his head and shook away the fog, he could once again smell the delicious scent of spice and gingerbread.
“Yo, what are you doing here?” Toby stretched and yawned, and thought to himself how good he felt to do so. It was a strange feeling too, as not a bit of pain greeted his rising. “I never did thank you enough.”
“You’re most welcome, my friend. But now I’ve come to take you home Toby.”
“I am home.” A look of confusion crossed his face as he strained in the darkness to see the dimly lit bluish radiance of his friend.
“No Toby, I’ve come to take you to your true forever home.”
Momentary concern rested on the old dog’s heart, “I can’t go with you. I have the old man to care for. He needs me, you know, and if I leave with you, why …”
“It’s ok Toby, I came for him also about an hour ago. He’s waiting for you now, and sent me to bring you.”
As Toby arose, he felt the best he had in ages. It was as if he was a puppy again; no pain, no stiffness. It was all so weird, but no less wonderful.
“Well,” Toby paused, “I guess if the old man is waiting, then I suppose it’s okay.”
It was the day after Christmas, and there, in the corner of the living room, a small tree stood adorned with all sorts of antique ornaments. The carpet was thin and matted in spots and the dated furniture sat tatty and faded from time. But all-in-all each piece was carefully placed, much the same as were the monochrome pictures of family and familiar places on the walls. The previous evening’s dishes were still in the sink, but otherwise the room was seemingly untouched. And as the old man’s housekeeper gently called out to him as she entered, she noticed that neither the old man nor Toby came to greet her.
Curious as to their whereabouts, but assuming they were off on an early morning jaunt, she began her work dusting and straightening what few possessions the old man had. She had worked for only a few minutes when she passed by the bedroom’s open door. There, as if they had never been apart were the old man and his aged dog. Their stillness surprised her, and as a moment of panic and fear ascended, she entered and called softly to awaken them. But they were already walking together elsewhere … together as loving companions forever.
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