by Dustin Heron
Old Duke never left the yard anymore, he just kind of stood there at the edge, watching, his back high and humped, his jaws slobbering, his fur dusky gold; he looked like an old ramshackle camel, and Wendy hated him. He was knobby and yellow-eyed and his fur hung off him like a dirty cape and, worst of all, he barked violently when she walked by. Last time she came near his house, he charged her and she saw his grey fangs, so now she only walked on the east side of Cedar Street. But still he’d stand there barking his raspy bark, so loud all the birds would fly from the trees, cats would scatter, other dogs would lower their heads and fall silent. His bark followed her home, just two houses down but a lifetime, it seemed, to pass Old Duke and cross the street to the safety of her doorway. She’d stand there and listen to her heart pounding until it was quiet and she could hear the gentle thrushing sound of the birds settling back into the trees.
Her dad said Old Duke was just ‘a good boy keeping an eye on things,’ and Wendy resented that he talked to her like she was a little kid who knew nothing. A good boy! Not all dogs were boys, not all cats were girls, and—definitely—not all dogs were good. She knew that, but didn’t say so. The way her dad looked at her, the little frown on his face, as though she confused him somehow—there was something innocent about it, and she found herself unable to contradict him.
But one morning Old Duke wasn’t there, and he still wasn’t there when she got home from school. The birds chattered idly. The whole week: no Old Duke. By Friday the blood no longer pounded in her ears when she walked past his house; she could hear her feet scraping across the sidewalk, hear them crunching the first of the Fall leaves.
There was no sign of Old Duke the week after that, either, and Wendy found herself walking on the west side of the street, her side, and she’d skip and run, chase birds, swing sticks, get lost in her mind, its duchies and caverns and secret places. Then one Tuesday she was balancing across the granite rocks that edged Old Duke’s yard when she heard a screen door open and clatter shut. It was his house, the door was open, it was dark inside. Wendy froze, her limbs slack. She saw him come charging out, too fast; would he go for her face? Her arms? Her guts? But it wasn’t Old Duke; it was a chubby white woman so wrapped up in scarves and shawls she looked like a pile of unfolded laundry.
‘Are you looking for Old Duke?’
‘No,’ said Wendy.
‘Well, he’s inside. Old Duke is sick. He’s dying.’
Suddenly the woman was standing before her. She seemed soft and gentle, and her voice was cheerful. ‘Would you like too see him? Would you like to say goodbye?’
Wendy said nothing but, at a soft touch to her shoulder, followed the woman inside.
‘Old Duke loves visitors,’ said the woman. ‘Go on, go say hi.’
The dog was lying in front of an unlit fireplace. All his fur had sloughed off. He was bloated, his pink skin raw and covered in tumors and pebbly moles. His rheumy eyes goggled. His toothless mouth licked at his twisted paws. He had no idea she was standing there.
‘Why am I here?’ said Wendy.
‘To visit Old Duke! He loves children,’ said the woman, gently nudging Wendy from behind. ‘Go on, give him a pet.’
‘No thank you,’ said Wendy.
‘Come on, just a little pat on the head. He’d love it.’
Wendy was always doing things like this to make adults happy. To make her dad happy, who was so sad and alone all the time.
‘I’m so sick of dead things.’
The woman frowned. ‘He’s not dead yet.’
‘I said, no!’ shouted Wendy and turned. The woman was there. Wendy pushed her, right in her middle; it was soft and squishy, it was like pushing a pillow. She ran outside and the woman was barking at her but Wendy kept running and when she was in her doorway she listened but heard nothing. The street was quiet and her hands stung slightly with victory.
Dustin Heron is a social worker who works with homeless women in California. He writes short stories in his spare time. He holds an MA and MFA from San Francisco State University and his work has appeared most recently in Occulum, Ghost Parachute, Craft Literary, Porridge, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press.