Buster enjoyed warm days, lying in the sun, and guarding the front yard from the intrusion of neighborhood cats. The absolute best thing—resting on his bed beside Alex’s typewriter desk while Alex wrote.
Only that didn’t happen any more. And Buster’s hips ached. He didn’t get walked as much anymore.
Things changed. His puppy days rested in his memories. He didn’t control what happened, even if he wished for change.
The good thing about rainy mornings, besides the smell of the rain on the lawn? Buster didn’t have to walk so far to do his business.
The bad thing about this particular rainy morning? Alex was still asleep in bed. Buster fought not to whimper. He didn’t want to whimper like a puppy, but these days it felt like his bladder was smaller than ever.
Outside the rain came down, soaking the small front lawn. Buster could see it from the living room window. He walked heavily back that way now, his ears dragging on the floor with each stiff step.
Sweepin’ up, Alex called it, affectionately. When he wasn’t sleeping. He’d worked late last night, which meant that Buster hadn’t gotten his evening bathroom break, or his dinner, on time. He’d barely had time to give Alex one welcoming bark before he’d scampered out onto the lawn.
And couldn’t go.
Buster had stood there, left rear leg raised, left leg protesting, while Alex had watched from the doorway. “Come on, Buster. Hurry up.”
He had been trying, but after holding it so long it was hard to let go.
Then Buster had finally let go and the burning release had smelled sharp and hot as the steam rose from the grass around him.
Now the pressure raised a whimper in his throat. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d gone late last night, now his body was ready to go again.
Buster pressed his nose against the cold glass. Rain poured down from the sky. No long walks this morning. The way his hips felt lately, that was good. Alex loved walking outside, but after their long morning walks Buster could be aching all day while Alex was gone to work.
All that water running down the glass, it made him thirsty. He licked at the glass. It was cold but tasted of cobwebs, not refreshing water. He ran his tongue over his nose to clear the cobwebs. Nasty, dusty things that smelled like dried flies and spiky spiders.
The pain of Buster’s swollen bladder brought another whimper up his throat like a belch. He didn’t mean to do it, but it welled up all on its own. A second later another followed.
If Alex didn’t get up and let him out soon he wouldn’t have any choice but to go inside.
Shame made Buster hang his head down until his ears lay limp on the carpet and his nose snuffled at the dusty carpet. He hadn’t piddled in the house since he was a puppy and only twice then.
The urgency couldn’t be denied any longer. He hated to take measures, but the alternative was worse. Buster breathed in deep. The dust tickled his nose. He sneezed.
Then Buster raised his head, all the way up until his ears fell back along his neck. He closed his eyes and poured all of his fear and bladder distress into a mournful howl.
It rose up like a spiraling bird. It echoed through the house. Guilt over the noise nearly made Buster stop, but piddling in the house? He couldn’t have that.
A thump in the other room made Buster stop. He stood up and walked as quick as his stiff legs could carry him to the door. He stopped there and sat, his head hanging low.
Alex stumbled out of the hallway, rubbing his eyes. “Buster, what the hell?”
Buster whimpered and looked away. His tail rose and smacked the floor once.
“What time is it?” Alex came closer, rubbing his eyes as he squinted at the clock on the wall. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Buster.”
Buster still couldn’t bring himself to look at Alex, but he thumped his tail twice against the floor. The pain in his bladder made just about anything else impossible.
“Hang on,” Alex said.
Alex came over and unlatched the door. The snap of the locks signaled the possibility of release. Buster stood and shuffled back as Alex pulled the door open.
“Go ahead, Buster. Sorry, I can’t go walking right now. I’m not dressed.”
Buster was already moving as fast as he could past Alex’s legs, out the door, and carefully, one step at a time, down the steps to the concrete path. Rain pelted his fur but all he cared about was getting to the lawn.
Behind him, the door closed. Buster heard it but he was more focused on where he put each paw. He left the path and his ears dragged against the wet grass. He lifted his head but he just wasn’t tall enough to avoid it. His ears were going to get wet.
Out on the lawn, he sniffed the air. Nothing but the scent of rain and wet earth. No sign of the neighborhood cats or other intruders. Not in this rain. He circled to the far side of the willow tree, which hung down so far in the rain that it was almost like a curtained room, shielding him from prying eyes.
Far enough. Buster stopped, lifted his leg, and —
Nothing. The pressure was intense and he whimpered but nothing was coming out.
Buster closed his eyes, concentrated and listened to the sound of rain pattering down all around him on the willow tree leaves.
Buster’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he panted. Finally a small trickle, only a few drops squirted out.
Buster whined. He licked his nose. What if the cats came back into the yard?
That finally did it. A stream of hot urine squirted out, faltered, then shot out with more force. Now that it was going he peed easily, freely, and panted more.
He kept peeing for a long time, pushing every last drop out until the stream ended at last.
Buster turned around. The urine marked his spot well, even with the rain he could smell it. The sharp ammonia smell but there was something else. An old bone smell.
He blinked and squinted at the ground.
There was something white sticking out of the wet earth. Buster took a deeper breath, this time ignoring the smell of his pee soaking into the wet earth.
Definitely an old bone. Thick on the end, gleaming wetly in the light. Buster didn’t remember burying a bone under the tree but he could have done. But he didn’t think so. Who knew how long the bone had lay sheltered in the earth? The bone must have been buried until the willow tree’s roots forced it up close to the surface. Then the rain and Buster’s pee had washed away the earth and exposed the bone.
Buster like a good gnaw. It was something to do while Alex went to work all day. He could lay on top of the warm vents by the window and chew as long as he liked, savoring the memories.
He pawed at the bone. The loose earth crumbled beneath his claws, exposing more and more of the bone. It was a good-sized bone with hard thick white walls and a hollow center. The surface was rough and caked with dirt but Buster knew what to do about that.
When he finally got it out he gave it a quick toss with his head. The bone sailed into the air, smacking the wet willow tree branches before tumbling with a muffled thud to the ground.
Buster ambled over and sniffed at the bone. Some of the dirt had come off. He picked up the bone in his teeth and threw it again. It spun off across the lawn, rolling to a stop.
On his fourth throw, the front door opened.
“What you doing, buddy?” Alex leaned out. He was dressed now. Work slacks, shirt, doing up his cuffs as he squinted at Buster.
Buster ambled over to the bone and picked it up in his mouth. He sat down in the wet grass and thumped his tail three times.
“Is that a bone? Uh. You want to bring it inside?”
Buster stood up.
“Okay, I guess. Come on, buddy. You’re getting soaked playing out there.”
Buster picked his way across the wet lawn. His ears laid down tracks like two large-sized slugs. He reached the bottom of the concrete steps and it looked like a sheer cliff.
When he was younger he didn’t mind the steps. He would have launched himself up them without hesitation. These days his hips bothered him too much for that. He had to stop and consider his approach.
“Come on, Buster, it’s pouring rain!”
Alex was right. The rain was motivation to get inside so he could lay by the vents. Buster stepped up, right foreleg first and his hips felt okay. They would until he had to jump up.
Buster got his left foreleg up and turned lengthwise on the step. That made it easier to get his rear legs up. Then he turned, left foreleg first on the next step, turning as he did to walk up onto the next step.
“I don’t know any other dog that does switchbacks to get up stairs,” Alex complained.
Other dogs probably didn’t have to worry about stepping on their ears, or deal with bad hips. But Buster knew that Alex cared. It was hard for Alex to wait, was all.
Alex stepped out of the way as Buster turned and walked inside then obediently stop and stood still. He didn’t move from the small welcome mat inside the door.
From a hook beside the door, Alex picked up a ratty green towel. It had a picture on it of an angry man with big muscles and huge fists. It looked like the man was going to smash something, but Buster wasn’t afraid. He loved the ritual with the towel.
Alex used it to wipe down Buster’s fur like an enormous tongue licking off the water soaking his fur. It wouldn’t dry him completely but Buster wiggled beneath the touch of the towel. He stayed put until Alex toweled off all his feet and wagged his tail happily before heading over to the floor vents.
After rehanging the towel Alex headed into the kitchen. Buster plopped down on the carpet by the vents. From the kitchen came the smell of coffee brewing and the sugary sweet smell of Pop-Tarts in the toaster.
“I have to go to work early,” Alex said. “I’m sorry you’ve got to spend so much time inside.”
Buster dropped the bone on the carpet. Some dirt still clung to it, but that would come off.
“There’s so much to get done, it’s crazy. I was late last night working on the revised production schedules. Just when we think we have it nailed down then she throws an entirely new project at us. Just slip it in, she says.”
Buster turned his head over the vent, letting the warm air blast its way up around his face. The woman Alex was talking about was his boss, a writer named May Baxter. She wrote all sorts of things but was known for her romance novels. Alex worked for the publishing company that she had started to publish her work. Alex was her publisher, which meant that he was constantly working on her backlist and any new projects she wrote.
Instead of working on his own writing. Used to be that Buster would sleep in his bed beside Alex’s desk while Alex wrote. Buster found the sound of the keystrokes soothing. Alex used a typewriter for his first drafts and the clackity-clack of the keys was a comforting sound. But after Cindy—Alex’s ex-wife—left him he had taken the job with May Baxter to pay the bills. There was less time spent writing, and then one day the typewriter stopped working and so did Alex. He hadn’t touched the keys since.
Alex reappeared in the doorway holding a Pop-Tart in a paper towel, his travel coffee mug in the other hand, and his bright yellow messenger bag over his shoulder.
Another change there. Alex still carried the bag but rarely rode the bike anymore. Instead, he drove the twenty some-odd miles to May Baxter’s office.
“I’m really sorry,” Alex said. “I think we’ll catch up soon and when we do you and I will spend some time together. Maybe go camping.”
Buster lay down with his head right on the vent, the warm air pouring past his face. He’d like it better if Alex could just work from home again. Camping was cold and uncomfortable and required far too much walking. It was a job for a young dog. Buster closed his eyes and groaned at the thought of a puppy in the house.
“Don’t be like that,” Alex said.
Buster opened his eyes and thumped his tail on the carpet. He hadn’t meant to complain.
Alex came over and crouched down. He actually put his coffee mug down on the floor and ran his hand over Buster’s head. Buster pressed against Alex’s fingers, turning his head to the side just so, and Alex’s fingers dug in scratching gently behind Buster’s ears.
Fantastic. Better than the heater vent. Buster would have been happy to spend all day like this but the scratching ended as soon as it started. Alex picked back up the coffee and stood up.
“I’ll try to get home earlier today, Buster, so you don’t have to hold it so long.”
Then Alex was walking away, getting his coat out of the closet along with an umbrella. Then he didn’t have enough hands for everything so he abandoned the umbrella and went out in the rain with just the coat.
When the door slammed shut and the deadbolt snicked over into place the house felt empty. The clock on the wall ticked. The refrigerator made a noise. The vent kept blowing out warm air.
Buster had the next nine hours to spend and a nap sounded like a good first step.
When Buster woke he noticed two things. First, the vent wasn’t blowing hot air. That happened off and on throughout the day. He didn’t like it any more than he liked cats coming in the yard, and he was equally unable to do much about it.
The second thing he noticed was the bone a few inches from his nose. It still smelled of earth and bone, grass and a faint hint of his pee. All comforting smells. He stretched out a paw and pulled the bone closer so he could give it a good long sniff.
It smelled old, bringing to mind lazy summer days and lazier winter mornings. He smelled the promise of spring embedded deep in the thick bone and the contentment of fall. The years lay deep in the bone. Each one of them captured there while the cow lived its life. It was a cow. Sometimes bones were horse bones. He’d even had a bone from a pig once.
This had belonged to a cow.
Maybe someday another dog would smell his bones, and get a whiff of what his life had been like. Not to chew on his bones, of course. He wouldn’t think of chewing on the bones of another dog.
Buster picked up the bone and started to chew. He still had all his teeth, that was something. His teeth slid along the bone. He adjusted his paws, holding it in just the right spot.
The muscles in his jaw clenched and relaxed with each bite. Tiny bits of the bone shaved off, gritty against his tongue, but as he gnawed he picked up more scents. Days spent out in the cold rain. Being pestered by flies on a hot day. The satisfaction of a mouth full of fresh grass sprinkled with chilly morning dew.
All those memories locked up in the bone, laid down from one year to the next.
Buster had never seen Alex chew on a bone. He knew from long experience that Alex was blind to most of the scents that they passed on their walks. How many times had Buster stopped to savor a particular odor only to have Alex pull him away with the leash?
Buster’s teeth kept gnawing at the bone, polishing the dirty exterior to a gleaming clean bone. The biggest trouble with eating memories like this is that they were gone once the bone was chewed. But there were always more bones later.
Then the bone did something unexpected. It slipped from his paws and floated up into the air. It hung before his nose like a dandelion fluff caught on a breeze, but Buster had never seen a bone float before.
A golden light came from both the open ends of the bone. That light looked like a sunrise on a bright day.
Buster shrank back from the floating bone and barked. His yippee bark, Alex called it, laughing each time. Because of that Buster rarely barked but right now he barked.
Bones should not float or shine like the sun. Bones were for chewing memories.
Next, the bone rotated, first one way and then the other, as if caught by an erratic breeze but Buster didn’t feel any wind and the vent wasn’t blowing either.
He shuffled back another step and barked. He considered running, but running was hard.
The bone stopped spinning and the light at one end dimmed. Something moved in the light, blocking it. The something was dark, about the size of a nasty housefly, but it grew quickly like someone far away who gets bigger when they get close.
In a few moments, even Buster’s eyes could make out that the shape was a bird, a chicken, with a bright red comb and gleaming orange feathers. But a chicken not much bigger than a mouse.
The chicken kept coming closer even though the light and the bone didn’t move. It got closer and closer until it was fully chicken-sized. Then it stepped out of the light into the house.
Buster barked! He barked and barked and barked some more. A chicken in the house!
“Aw, cut it out already!” The chicken said.
Buster stopped barking.
Instead, a whimper welled up from inside and spilled out of his mouth.
The chicken clucked and fluffed her black and white speckled wings. She stretched out one wing, then the other and then flapped vigorously but her clawed feet didn’t leave the ground.
“Oh, oh,” the chicken said. “That feels so good! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trapped in that bone. I mean really, I can’t tell you! It isn’t as if I’ve got a clock in there!”
Buster considered this and opened his mouth. Another whimper spilled out like drool. He clapped his mouth shut.
“Problem?” The chicken’s head cocked one way, then the other, red comb flapping with each head turn. “Cat got your tongue!”
It didn’t take a genius to realize that the chicken was laughing at him. Buster cleared his throat. “It’s not nice to laugh at others.”
He didn’t normally speak. In fact, he couldn’t remember any time in the past when he had spoken, but it seemed normal enough at the moment. The chicken stopped cawing and turned its head, looking at him out of one eye.
“Yeah, talking, that’s the shit, isn’t it? Dogs like that, right? Shit? You roll in shit, don’t you?” The chicken waggled its rear. “Get all up in there, don’t you?”
Buster’s head dropped automatically as his ears seemed to have gotten heavier by the second. The chicken was horrible, foul —
Why had it come out of his bone?
“Because, you lucky flea-bitten hound, I’m a genie.”
Buster lifted his eyes. Still a chicken down to the long black and white tail feathers. “You don’t look like a genie.”
“And you’d know this, howl?” The chicken clucked, head bobbing. “Did ya get it? Did you?”
Buster ignored the chicken’s antics. “Why were you in the bone?”
“What does it matter? You dim-witted, pathetic wretch? What kind of animal is stupid enough to chew on a bone when there’s no meat and no marrow? A dog, that’s what, but I think you’re beautiful. You chewed it down enough to let me out!”
The chicken flapped its wings again, then fluffed its feathers. “Oh, it feels so good! I’m even going to do you a favor, ugly long-eared mutt, and grant your fondest wish.”
“I am! What’ll it be? Wait, let me guess. Shorter ears?”
The weight of Buster’s ears vanished. It was as if his head had suddenly become as light as a balloon. He flipped his head first one way, then the other, but no ears flopped across his face. He spun in a circle and still couldn’t see them.
“So? So? Whaddya think? Whaddya think?”
Buster whimpered. What had the chicken done to his ears? Buster shuffled over to the windows and squinted. With the rain, it was just dark enough outside that he could still make out his reflection. Instead of his two long ears, he had two tan triangles sticking out of his head on either side.
Ears, of a sort, but they would have looked more at home on a corgi.
“I didn’t wish for these ears,” Buster said.
“Oh, come on, you’re breaking my eggs here!”
Buster turned around and there was an egg lying split on the floor behind the chicken! What would Alex think?
“Every time someone turns down a wish, another egg gets broken,” the Chicken intoned.
“I want my ears back,” Buster said.
“Oh, oh, do you wish you had your ears back?”
Buster had already had just about enough of this Chicken genie from his bone. Instead of a nice chew, he had an intruder in the house taking his ears and breaking eggs.
The chicken flapped her wings. “CAWWWBAWWK!”
A familiar comfortable weight settled on Buster’s head. He turned his head quickly and was rewarded with the familiar flapping. His ears were back!
“Okay. Okay. I get it, it wasn’t the ears. You like your ridiculous, elephant-envying ears. I get it! But it must suck having them dragging on the ground like that all the time!
More flapping from the chicken, the wind making Buster squint. The wind was so strong that he felt his lips drawing back from his teeth and his ears flying back behind him. It was like being in the car, with his head out the window. Minus the fun.
He teetered and suddenly felt dizzy. The room looked strange. Buster looked around and realized that he was up high. As high as the back of the couch!
Buster dangled his head down. His ears flopped down too but still didn’t come close to the floor. Upside down he could see that he was perched on long thin legs like a hippo perched on a giraffe legs. Except these were longer in the back, not shorter, but these legs hardly seemed sturdy enough to support him and he didn’t like being so high that he couldn’t see the ground in front of his nose.
“I didn’t wish for these either,” Buster said.
“Come on! Stop breaking my eggs!”
And indeed there was another egg smashed on the floor. Buster tried to sit, wobbled, and decided against moving at all. He growled at the chicken instead.
“Fine! Fine! I’ve never met such an ungrateful cur!”
Buster fell. His paws scrambled at the air without finding purchase and then he hit the carpet with a thud like someone had dropped a bag of cement.
It hurt. Everything hurt. Scaly yellow three-toed feet appeared on either side of his nose. The claws looked particularly sharp. Buster rolled his eyes up and found the chicken watching him with one eye.
“What’s it going to be? Uh? Uh? You gotta make a wish you stinking carpet hound!”
Buster drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Though his bones ached, this would sure be some memory if anyone ever chewed his bones, he sat up.
The chicken danced back and shook her feathers. “Well? Well?”
“I wish that you —”
“BAWWK!” The chicken jumped in the air and came down again. “Don’t get wise on me! No wishing me back in the bone! You can’t wish me away! So don’t even waste my time!”
Buster looked away from the chicken at the room. It hardly got used anymore. Alex’s desk was a big dusty glass desk in the corner with the typewriter and the computer facing off like boxers in a ring. The computer got used, sometimes, but the typewriter remained unused since it had stopped working. The tray beside it still was stacked with the pages from Alex’s last unfinished novel.
And underneath the desk, back in the corner, was Buster’s bed. That’s what he wanted, time spent snoozing while Alex worked on his book. Alex was always happier when he was writing.
“Come on, come on, dog, you’re killing me!”
Buster looked back at the chicken. “Okay. I wish that Alex’s typewriter was fixed.”
“BAWK? Seriously? I mean, I like give you a chance to make a wish and you want me to fix a freakin’ typewriter? You can’t be serious!”
Buster stood up and faced the chicken. “Yes, that’s what I want. And put a bow on it, with a card that says with love, Buster.”
“Frickin’ crazy mutant canines! CAAWWBAWWK!” The chicken flapped twice, stirring a weak breeze.
A clear high bell rang behind Buster. He shuffled around and the typewriter was still where it had been but the layers of dust were gone. The whole desk gleamed. A bright red bow sat on the top of the typewriter and there was a sheet of paper rolled into the machine with three words typed on it.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, it isn’t a card but it seemed more appropriate you brain-dead fleabag. I’m outta here. I got bigger things to do!”
Buster’s head swung back in time to catch the chicken doing a sort of dance with her legs kicking, wings flapping and then there was a flash of light. When he could see again she was gone.
So were the broken eggs. The bone he’d found lay beside the window. He looked back up at the typewriter. The bow and the paper were still there.
By the time Alex got home that night Buster really needed to pee again. He was waiting beside the front door as Alex came in. Buster paused long enough for one short bark, stood still while Alex patted his back, and then he scampered out down the steps to reach the lawn. It felt so good to plunge his face into the grass and inhale the rich clean scent.
Alex was on the phone when he opened the door for Buster. Alex scratched the back of Buster’s neck and patted his back.
“No, Cindy, that’s what I’m telling you. I just came home and found it like that. I thought maybe you —”
“No? Okay, that’s fine. No. I understand. Yeah, it might have been May. No, I don’t know how she managed it. Yeah, that’s fine. I understand. Bye.”
Alex tapped the screen on his phone and dropped it into his pocket. Buster felt Alex’s confusion about the typewriter. There was only one thing to do.
Buster walked across the room to his bed. He turned around a couple times and dropped down and looked up at Alex.
Alex grinned. “Okay, Buster. I get it. I don’t know who was behind this, but I get it.”
Buster laid his head down on his paws and waited, tail thumping. Alex came over to the desk and sat down in his chair. He pushed with his feet and wheeled over in front of the typewriter.
Buster closed his eyes. There was the rolling noise, the rustle of paper as Alex took out the sheet and fed the machine a new one. Then a key clicked. And another. A pause and then more, several all at once. The familiar pattern picked up as Alex fell into the rhythm.
It didn’t even matter that they hadn’t eaten yet. Alex would remember soon enough and they’d have dinner, then more time spent together as Alex continued his story.
This story is the 86th short story release, written in May 2012. It remains one of my favorite stories that I’ve written.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Locked Out.