Struggling to her feet, May groaned and slowly walked to greet Mark in the kitchen. She pushed her nose into his thigh and slowly wagged her tail.
“Hello girl,” he said softly as he scratched behind her ear. She pressed closer to him wanting more. Mark moved his hand along her side trying unsuccessfully to avoid the tumors bulging near her ribs. May’s ears fell limp and she sighed, almost in shame.
“You’re a good girl, May. A good girl.”
Mark filled her bowl with water and food as he had every day for the past eleven years. She slowly lapped at the water, showing no interest in the food. She hadn’t taken food in a couple of days now.
Mark poured himself a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee then sat down at the table. May wandered slowly to her favorite spot in the kitchen, and curled up in the warm early morning sunlight.
“Morning Mark,” his father said as he entered the room and walked straight to the refrigerator. His father packed his lunch pail with a sandwich and fruit before addressing Mark directly. “Son, it has to be today.”
“I know Dad.”
His father looked at the floor, “It’s just that….with you leaving for college on Saturday. You know, that dog has always been your responsibility.”
I Know Dad.”
“That was always the deal.”
Mark stood up, annoyed. “I think I’ll take May for one more walk.” He walked past his father and took May’s leash from the hook. “Come on, girl.”
May stood up, tail wagging, doing her very best to be excited.
“Mark, that dog cannot be here tonight.”
“I get it, Dad!” Mark caught himself and in a soft voice repeated, “I get it.”
May nosed the leash in Mark’s hand. She looked at him as if to say – Let’s get out of here, Mark. Let’s go for a walk.
They went out into the back yard. It was an unusually cold morning for August and the grass was wet. The leash was slack in Mark’s grip as they headed for the woods behind the house. So many times they’d made this trek, down a path they’d created together many years ago.
As a pup, there were times May would pull so hard, Mark thought his shoulder may dislocate. Today she meandered and Mark found himself slowing his own pace so that May could still lead the way.
There was a distinct smell of fall in the air as they travelled the wooded path. It was a smell that Mark loved even though he’d discovered that fall made him sad. He couldn’t explain his new attitude toward autumn, since he liked school and loved football, but one day last year he found himself sitting near a freshly raked pile of leaves and that smell brought tears to his eyes. He’d been embarrassed by that, and never told anyone.
May caught a distant scent and stopped walking looking into the woods. Mark looked too, but he couldn’t see what May sensed.
“Hey girl, remember when you chased that white-tail out here?” May wagged her tail.
Years earlier, May had spotted a deer in the wood line and run off crashing through the brush. It took Mark a frantic hour to find May that day. He was alone in the woods calling for her, with an empty leash in his hand. He had looked skyward and thanked God when May had stumbled out the brush, exhausted and filthy.
“What were you going to do with a deer if you caught it?” Mark smiled and May walked to him and licked the back of his hand.
By the time they got to the lake, May was tiring. Mark could sense it, so he sat down on the split log bench and let her curl up and rest.
“Remember this spot, May? This is the spot where I kissed Laurie for the first time.” May groaned and looked away. “You didn’t like her much, did you May?” He checked his watch and then added “You sure had her pegged, didn’t you? Disaster.”
May opened her mouth in the shape of a dog-smile. She stood and walked to Mark, resting her head on his lap, just like she had for nearly all his life. She looked up at him with soft brown eyes. They were sad eyes today without a trace of the mischief that he loved so much.
Mark stroked May’s head and remembered sleeping under the stars with her at his side not far from this spot. They would escape to the lake when Dad was hitting the bottle. There was that summer, when they’d lost Mom, that he’d been camping an awful lot.
“Remember that, girl? We’d sleep out here?” May looked at him but didn’t raise her head from his lap. “Those were good times, weren’t they? Especially when you chased off Louie Fanza and his crowd.”
Fanza was a few years older than Mark and always looking for trouble. One night, Fanza and his gang had shown up at the lake. Fanza was angry and drunk. It probably would have turned out bad for Mark, but the Fanza gang wasn’t very interested in bullying when they got a look at the large German Shepherd at Mark’s side.
“I sure hope I don’t meet any Fanzas at college.”
May stood up ready to go home.
“Listen, May. I gotta take you to the Doc today.” May wagged her tail and cocked her head. “You are really sick, girl. And I have to go to college on Saturday. So Doc is going to make you sleep for a really long time…forever. So, I need to tell you goodbye now. I’m not going to cry when I take you into Doc’s place.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks. He felt a chill as the August sun was now obscured by clouds.
“May, you’ve been so good to me. I couldn’t have made it through everything without you. I’m not sure we’ll see each other again. Some people say that heaven has to have dogs or it wouldn’t be heaven. I don’t know. I’ve studied it and I just don’t know. But I’d like to believe we’ll meet again.”
May jumped up in his lap, finding long-lost strength. She licked his face and he laughed through the tears. He wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his flannel shirt.
“Come on, Girl. We need to get back on the path.”
They walked slowly toward home. It was getting cooler and Mark thought they might get rained on. He spoke aloud as he walked but May ignored him.
“You know May, I’m not even sure I want to go to college. I don’t belong in a city; I belong in the woods not in some classroom. Maybe I shouldn’t even go.”
As they approached the trailhead he could see his darkened house. Dad had long ago left for work. There was Mark’s truck parked in the driveway, looming. He’d let May ride in the cab today for sure. Before leaving the woods Mark kneeled down and hugged her, his face buried in May’s neck.
“I wish we could stay here forever.”
He hugged her tighter, “Forever May.”
Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham