He woke up in the middle of nowhere, grey clouds, white snow and rose, starving.
In his mind, a single blurry thought, animal obsession; he had to go somewhere, a safe place, find it, so he did what he had to and left.
For days, and weeks, he ran south, snow melting as he went, roving through dark woods, meadows, shadowed valleys, rocky hills, roaring torrents under blue changing skies, shining stars; eating whatever he found on his way; hens, rabbits, cats, any living animal he could catch, and even a dead bird once.
He met people, bared his teeth at them and growled, fierce. They ran away, reminded of old tales –black coat, shining blue eyes, too white teeth- and called the cops.
He rushed through woods and lands and hills as they were running after him; one of them nearly shot him down but he pounced and bit the man's throat hard, blood spilling on the ground, the useless gun falling to the grass; then he left, uncaring as the man lay dying.
He fought others of his kind, or worse, he was bitten, wounded, hurt; he fucked some bitches and kept running.
And one day he reached the place he'd been looking for. He stood upon a hill and looked down at the city, a dangerous place; he looked for another way but couldn't find any; he waited until the busy streets went still under the veil of darkness –then ran along the avenues and boulevards and alleys, guided by something that was maybe instinct, and maybe not.
Uptown, another hill, a wealthy suburb, and at the end of a quiet street, a house – the one he'd been looking for, heading for; the gate was opened, grass and trees bathed in the precious light of dawn; he sneaked into the garden and hid there behind a bush of roses; the place smelled of earth and spring and life and other things that awakened faint memories. Later he heard noises, voices, doors closing and stepped warily out of his hiding place, saw a little girl walk out, and froze.
"Daddy, daddy, there's a huge dog in the garden, I think maybe it's a wolf."
A man rushed out, grabbed the little girl and pulled her inside; the door closed again, so he walked up the stairs and stayed there, uncertain, waiting for something to happen, scratching against the door from time to time, calling the man who'd looked different –familiar; finally lay down and waited.
Later, the door opened and he whimpered, hungry and exhausted. The man looked at him, this big black stray dog sprawled on his doorstep; crouched by his side, rested a tentative hand on his raw-boned back, stroke his muscular neck; he let out a muffled bark and rolled over; his dark eyes, too blue for any dog, caught the man's eyes, fingers slid upon his neck, checking, finding the chain and the medal he'd been given long ago –another life, another time, another place.
"Jesus fucking Christ," the man said, shaky voice, teary look "It's you, it's really you!"; he smelled good, familiar touch, familiar voice; the caressing hand on his neck, his breast, his back, checking the wounds, the scars and the lilting whisper were slowly drowning him in ecstatic drowsiness; he licked an open warm palm and the man laughed.
He stretched under the caress, groaning; he couldn't think; but it didn't matter, Toby would take care of him now, he was home.
Toby was used to cats. As a child, he'd had one, found in the garden and that his mother had allowed him to keep.
But dogs… And *this* one especially… Maybe he should call a vet but he didn't dare, afraid that maybe the animal wasn't quite a dog and that they took him away; he didn't look quite like a dog, there was something else, wilder, even now as he was lying in front of the chimney on the Persian carpet, seemingly asleep, breathing low, maybe dreaming. But when Holly came back from the garden the dog's ragged ears quivered and he bared his fangs until the little girl was inside; then acknowledging her as no threat, he went quiet again.
"Are we going to keep it?" Holly asked, concerned, not daring go to near.
Toby saw the dog freeze; he was motionless, even his breathing looked suspended.
"I think he needs some rest; let's wait and see what he decides."
The little girl nodded, solemn.
"Yes, he may stay if he wants; how are we going to call him? It's a boy, isn't it?"
"I think so; how do you want to call him?"
She took in the leaning form, not quite reassured yet and shook her head; Toby smiled.
"Hey, baby, how d'ya wanna be called?"
Blue eyes opened and the long emaciated body stretched, every lean muscle strained, skin taut; after a moment he came closer and rested his head on Toby's lap.
"I think Baby's fine," Holly said, daring to brush her fingertips along the tarnished coat, and the dog licked her hand, "He seems to like it."
"Is Baby fine? It sounds a little strange; he doesn't look like being called baby."
"May I call my friends, may I tell them we have a dog? You never wanted one before!"
"No, listen, Honey, we don't know anything about this animal, maybe he belongs to someone; I'm afraid that your friends get scared, or maybe he'll be scared; and who knows… He might be dangerous if he's scared."
Wise guy, the dog's eyes said.
It had been five days since the last time Toby had seen the dog lying on the stairs behind the house where he used to sleep, sprawled on the tiles, looking much more like a black panther than like a dog, too big, too strong, frightening; more or less watching Holly and Harry play ; seemingly indifferent to Toby’s approach, as always, letting him come close before turning his massive head to him. Yawning, then pushing his muzzle against Toby’s thigh and rubbing it against the fabric of his pants.
/Hey, where the fuck have you been all day? I’ve been waiting for you /
And Toby shook his head, smiling and scratched the animal behind the ears, caressed him, talked to him, played with him like he did every day. Or maybe the dog played with Toby, knowing it was good for the man; that he needed that.
Next morning he was gone.
He’d left once before for a whole night and returned with a smug stride before collapsing in the middle of the kitchen, looking exhausted and happy.
But 5 days ...
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Holly finally asked before leaving for school on the fifth morning.
“I don’t know, Honey. I'm sure he will, if he can.”
I won’t cry for a dog, Toby thought, angry, throwing a glass across the kitchen; watching it shatter against the sink with bitter satisfaction; it’s just a fucking dog; I have to stop thinking otherwise.
Clinging to that thought, not quite sure why he felt so angry, he showered and dressed, opened up the door and locked it behind him before leaving, gave a last look around as he’d been doing every past 5 morning, almost against his own will –and froze.
The dog was there, lying under a bush near the back wall; lying so quiet and unmoving that Toby thought he was dead and felt an old pain wake up somewhere deep inside him.
He ran to the dog, his heart pounding in his chest and froze when the dog snarled, baring his fangs –don’t you fucking come nearer. Toby crouched in front of him, held out his hand and the snarl grew louder; a deep fierce threatening growl saying –don’t you fucking touch me; no one does.
Toby withdrew his hand, took two steps back and the dog dropped his head with an agonizing groan.
He’d be late at work; fuck work. He took off his jacket and tie, rolled up his sleeves and sat on the freshly mown grass, surrounded by the scents of late spring.
Taking a close look at the massive bulk sprawled in front of him Toby spotted two bleeding wounds, one of them just below the ear looking deep and messy, the other one from his shoulder blade down to his right flank. Turning his head he saw a bloody smear along the path. Too much blood.
/Don’t you fucking die on me; don’t you do that *again*; don’t do that to me, to Holly /
He went back inside the house and brought back water; the dog turned his head away.
Fuck off, Toby! /
Toby swore and left to answer the phone, tell his brother he’d take the day off, pretending to be sick; when he came back the dog had crawled further under thick thorny bushes where he wouldn’t be bothered.
The dog had closed his eyes, trying to cling to what little strength he had left.
There was pain, agonizing pain in his head, his lungs, his back and growing weakness, the temptation to let go...
But he could feel the presence of the man sitting a little further.
The man, Toby, had nothing to do with the pain –but his animal stubborn brain kept believing that he was able to inflict the same kind of torture; maybe had already; in the dog’s mind, some blurred pictures flashed from time to time that he couldn’t understand; the man was in his dreams. He wouldn’t let him come closer but he didn’t want him to leave either.
In the afternoon Toby called a vet, pretending he was lost in the middle of nowhere with a wounded dog; the lamest trick he’d pulled on anyone for a long time and he thought it wouldn’t work but it did, actually and the young guy gave him useful advice, stuff he had to get and what he had to do. Pretty simple; if the dog wasn’t dead in the morning he probably wouldn’t die at all.
I don’t want to see him die, Toby thought, coming a little closer, taking advantage of the fact that the dog looked asleep –just looked and he growled again when Toby moved, a faint protest though and little by little Toby moved closer until he only had to reach out to touch the dog’s head, the open wounds, the bloody hair but the fierce eyes didn’t leave him...
How the hell had he got himself into such a shit?
Everybody had told him to get rid of the animal; the dog looked too fierce, too big, too strong, too wild. Lethal.
Once, after the dog had tried –successfully- to prevent one of Toby’s rare dates to enter the house, Toby had threatened him.
I should listen to them. I would lock you up,” he’d said, the dog’s intense blue gaze on him. And shrugging, he’d added, “but I could not bear to hear you screaming to be set free.”
Everyone was scared and the dog did nothing to make things better, seemed to take some perverse pleasure in growling at everyone, standing between Toby and any visitor who wasn’t a child. He’d hurt no one yet but it was a matter of time before it happened, the first stranger who’d talk too loud to Toby, the first person who’d threaten him… Toby knew that. He couldn’t even mess around with his brother without the dog snarling, obviously upset.
“Maybe we should move to a place where he would be free, go wherever he wants.” Holly suggested once.
“We’re not burying ourselves in the country just because of a sociopath dog.”
The discussion seemed to be closed but Toby caught himself reading through the ads for another place, a place with large grounds; no nosy neighbours….
“I think maybe I’ve been chosen to save him,” he told Sister Pete. She gave him an annoyed look and frowned, ready for a lecture but the dog raised his head, resting it on Toby’s thigh, looking up to him with those unreadable eyes and growling, a strange tender and teasing noise that drew Toby’s hand to him.
Sister Pete sighed.
”I believe this is the most sacrilegious thing I ever heard from you or from… anyone else; this dog is an animal and… Jesus, how many times did we have this conversation already?”
“You don’t believe he’s *just* an animal; look at him in the eyes and you’ll know.”
“I’m not sure I really want to know.”
He smiled; it was like a game between them; when she rose the dog went to her and pushed his muzzle against her hand, making her laugh.
“But he certainly is a smart dog, anyway.”
Now a cloudy night had fallen and the smart dog lay there, looking suspiciously like an old ragged carpet, his breath fast and shallow and Toby couldn’t help the tears from welling in his eyes. His second attempt at bringing water had been turned down again, and the dog looked like he was quietly dying –alone, refusing any help, any comfort. Holly had retired to bed, crying her heart out, with her father’s promise that he wouldn’t leave the dog alone; she’d said a little prayer for Chris –she called him Chris with genuine innocence and when she did the dog raised his head and looked at her.
Tonight he hadn’t even seem to hear her.
“If you’d let me, I could help,” Toby said, his voice sounding strange and shaky in the darkness “but you’re as stubbornly proud and wary as always, uh? Loving you takes such courage, you stupid son of a bitch.”
He sat there through a beautiful late spring night; the moon spreading a cold silvery light on the garden, glittering on the dark coat of the animal lying there; and Toby dozed off for a while; dreamed of Chris, Human-Chris, his hands, his lips, his voice, his body; woke up shivering, looked around, panicked – what if the dog was dead?
It took him a full minute to realize; the animal was lying next to him, a heavy paw resting on Toby’s hand.
“Hey,” Toby said “you’re gonna let me, now?”
This time the dog gulped down the whole bowl of water; then let his head fall in Toby’s lap and when Toby wanted to rise, go to the kitchen gather what he needed to nurse him the dog growled again.
/Don’t you fucking move! /
So Toby leaned back against the wall and just sat there until dawn, warmed by the heavy breath of the wounded beast.
Holly was up early; the dog granted them permission to check the wounds, clean them, dress them as much as they could; accepted to swallow the prescribed pills, locking his teeth around Toby’s fingers to remind his human companion that it was up to him only to decide how much he would take; his teeth leaving livid marks on Toby’s hands –he could’ve bitten them off without a single effort. He let Holly caress him and finally made his way to the back door, limping painfully, moaning and curled up there, waiting for recovery.
From the corner of his eyes he kept watching Toby’s every move.
Two weeks later the dog managed to climb the stairs, waited outside the room until Toby opened the door and slid in. The next morning Toby found the dog asleep at the foot of the bed and couldn’t find the heart to chase him out; the dog looked so miserable, so scraggy, exhausted, barely able to eat yet and Toby had been so scared to lose him… He gave up the rules he’d tried to lay down in the beginning, one by one.
“If you do that,, let him sleep in your room,” the vet said warningly “you won’t have any control of the situation; if you let him believe he’s the leader of the pack, he’ll behave as one and then...” she waved in dismissal.
Toby laughed. “Won’t be that much of a change; I guess. He’s already very full of himself.”
“One bite and I’ll put him to death,” she said, the dog sitting at Toby’s feet, very calm, his eyes half shut, looking absolutely indifferent “he’s obviously dangerous.”
You say I'm dangerous ; what do you know about me ? /
Later Toby walked out, the dog walking by his side; he could almost hear Chris’ voice.
“Angus, I just had your brother on the phone and guess what?” Toby’s mother sounded both exasperated and resigned, “He’s moving to the country with the kids; he told me he’d found a big house surrounded with huge grounds somewhere... Can you believe it? I wonder what’s got into him!”
Angus turned to Toby who was standing at the door of the office, smiling to him.
“Yeah, mum, really, I wonder,” he said, and smiled back.