The phone rang.
Josh looked over at it, not sure if he’d heard correctly. A muscular contraction twitched its way up his spine, something like a false start toward answering it. The leather chair he was sitting in made a whispering noise as he shifted. He unconsciously lowered his book, as if that would help him see who was calling, somehow.
The date was October first. Nobody’s birthday, no holiday—no reason for anyone to be calling.
It rang again.
His eyes drifted over to Amanda’s picture on the table next to him, and that’s why he stood up. In all probability it was a wrong number or, worse, a solicitation to buy something or insure something or do something. But remembering what it was like to hear her voice on the line irresistibly compelled him to cross the room and reach for the phone before it rolled to voice mail—though he knew, of course, that it could not be Amanda.
He didn’t recognize the number in his caller ID. “Hello?”
“Michael! Dude, you don’t answer your cell phone? I left you like five messages.”
Josh was frowning, trying to place the voice squawking in his ear.
“I need your help, buddy. I have a major situation,” the caller continued.
“Sorry, who is this?”
“It’s Ryan. Your neighbor? Come on, Michael, you remember me.”
“My name’s not Michael,” was all Josh could think to say. Ryan? Who the heck was Ryan? “It’s Josh Michaels.”
“Right, well, that just proves how stressed I am. Josh. Remember me? Brews at the Little Bear?”
The Little Bear was an old-west-style saloon that had been in the mountain town of Evergreen virtually since there had been an Evergreen. The place was always crowded—Josh sometimes went there because being packed in with so many people gave him the illusion that he was popular.
Brews at the Little Bear. Oh. Right. Josh briefly closed his eyes. Yes. Ryan. A shared conversation built on the misconception that their circumstances were similar. You’re lucky, Ryan had said. I got thrown out, had to find my own place even though I was unemployed and completely broke. Your deal, I know it sounds harsh, but in the end you’ve got a place to live.
Lucky? That he’d lost Amanda?
Not lucky. Amanda was gone but still here, her scent still imagined on the air, her presence just outside the periphery of Josh’s vision, the bed heavy in the dark with a sleeping form that was really only shadow and memory. It took a special kind of stupid to call that lucky.
And Ryan, Josh now recalled, was precisely that stupid. The man had listened to Josh’s tale of loss with the impatient expression of a debater waiting for his time at the microphone, plunging into a rant the moment Josh finished speaking. Ryan hated his old girlfriend. Hunched over a beer and making gathering motions as if enlisting Josh as an accomplice, Ryan spoke in hot, resentful terms about his breakup, all but suggesting he was due some sort of justice and, if not that, revenge. What was her name? Well, that didn’t matter. Josh just remembered feeling more and more distant from Ryan, watching him from across the table, then as if from across the room, and then as if from far, far away.
Had he really given this person his phone number?
“You said to call if I needed any help with anything,” Ryan reminded Josh, answering the unspoken question.
“Right, you said you tried to light a fire in your woodstove and the house filled with smoke.” The last thing anyone would want up here at 8,500 feet, living among lodgepole pines desiccated by Japanese beetles, was for some idiot to burn his cabin down. As Josh recalled, his offer of assistance had been limited to ensuring Ryan didn’t set fire to the entire mountainside.
“Well, this is like that times a thousand. My brother—you’re not going to believe this—got arrested. In France.” Ryan proclaimed this last word with a triumphant emphasis.
Josh waited a moment so that Ryan could explain what this had to do with him. “So…,” he finally prodded.
“So I need your help, bro. I’ve got Serena’s dog here. Someone needs to watch it.”
That was the ex-girlfriend’s name. Serena. “Well, no, I can’t,” Josh replied.
“Dude, I have got to go to Europe! They won’t let you take dogs there and anyway it’s not even my dog and I have to leave right away on a flight in like four hours. Okay? Can you hear how I’m really stressed here? Loose and I are coming over, I’ll explain it then.”
“Its name’s Loose, what can I tell you.”
Josh took in a deep breath, but the firm and unequivocal statement he intended to deliver was snuffed out by the dead tone that blanketed the line once Ryan clicked off.
Josh went to his window, a floor-to-ceiling expanse of paned glass next to the front door from which he could see his front deck and the yard and driveway beyond. The air was dry and clear this October afternoon, sun streaming down through the trees as if poured from a bucket. Amanda loved to hike on a day like this, a Saturday. They’d find a mountain trail and she’d be tireless, always ready to keep going. Ironically, she’d always wanted a dog, but Josh, picturing all the extra work that would go into taking care of a pet, said no. He saw himself as too busy for a dog.
If they’d gotten one, though, then Josh would have had a friend to help him mourn her. Wasn’t that the thing about dogs, that they stood by you no matter what? That was Josh’s impression, anyway.
Though their homes on the sparsely populated hillside were less than a hundred yards apart, Ryan drove over. He was apparently one of those people who kept his vehicle in full-time four-wheel drive because he lived in the mountains and thought that’s what you needed to do. Josh watched all four of the oversized tires bite the dirt as the SUV bounded up the switchback. It came to a grinding halt, rocking, and Ryan stepped out of the vehicle.
He was dressed the way Josh would be for air travel, wearing khaki pants, a sweater, and a light jacket. He gave a slight wave at Josh through the window, and Josh crossed to his front door, deciding to prevent Ryan and his dog Loose from their intended trespass. He stepped out on the deck, his boots ringing on the boards.
“Hey, Josh,” Ryan called as if they were the best of buddies.
Immediately after losing Amanda, Josh had let his hair and beard grow, just like Ryan’s—the whiskers not bushy, exactly, but sculpted into a permanent ten-days’ growth, the hair brushing his collar. Then during a teleconference Josh noticed his clients eyeing him and realized that he was pushing people toward a conclusion they were already willing to embrace, that he was some sort of lone nut living in a cabin on a mountain, coding applications in the day and then at night, what, running with the wolves? Building bombs out of wood pieces? Josh went back to the clean-shaven look, his dark hair short, and now Ryan’s wooly appearance, stringy blond hair down past his ears, reinforced the wisdom of Josh’s decision. Ryan looked as if he’d joined a cult that was against grooming.
“I appreciate this big time, buddy,” Ryan said gratefully.
“I can’t do it, Ryan. I’ve never even had a dog before. I don’t know the first thing about taking care of them.”
Ryan raised his hands to his head and winced as if he were having a migraine. “Can I just explain? This is serious. Do you even know what the laws are like in Europe? It’s like, Canada times a thousand. I have to hire a lawyer who speaks like both French and English, how am I going to do that? My brother’s arrested and it’s just totally messed up.”
Josh sifted through all of this carefully, looking for the part that explained why he should provide care for Ryan’s ex-girlfriend’s dog. He couldn’t find it. “Can’t she just take him back?”
A canine face, brown and black, rose up in the back of the SUV, looking out the window at the two men. A pink tongue peeped into view.
“Who, Serena? She’s traveling. And anyway she dumped the dog like she did me, that’s who she is, man, I told you. Look, just … it’s just for a few days. I’ll call you as soon as I’m settled in France, and I’ll make arrangements from there to have someone pick him up, okay? But I have to go now.”
Josh steeled himself. “Look, this isn’t my problem, Ryan. I’m sorry about your brother. But I can’t take a dog. It’s impossible.”
“Well, then, what am I going to do?” Ryan asked, lifting arms out to his sides and then dropping them flat on his hips. “There’s supposed to be a storm coming. I just let the dog go and it’ll freeze. There. The dog dies.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m leaving for Europe!” Ryan shouted in frustration. “Are you going to help me out here, or not?”
No. That’s what Josh was going to say. No, I will not help you out. Get off my property. But he glanced involuntarily at the dog before he spoke, and what he saw in those eyes made him hesitate. Suddenly, he took everything in from Loose’s perspective. Its owner gone, something that defied canine explanation. Living with Ryan, a man who felt that a flight to France, a place in Europe, preempted all other concerns, human and otherwise. Ryan probably would just abandon the poor animal, just as he was threatening. Loose would be bewildered and alone. The dog probably would die.
“I…,” Josh faltered helplessly.
Ryan saw something in Josh’s expression and seized it.
“Thanks, man, I owe you.” Ryan walked around to the back of his SUV. “I promise as soon as I get things figured out, I’ll call you. This is for like two or three days, max. I have the food right here.”
Ryan lifted the gate and, with a moment’s hesitation, a large dog, marked like a shepherd but with something else mixed in, leaped heavily to the ground. It shook, raised its head to Ryan for a touch that wasn’t forthcoming, and then trotted up to Josh, its head lowered and its tail beating the ground submissively.
Josh’s mouth was open in shock at the sight of the big dog. He put his hand down and was nuzzled with a wet nose, but his surprise choked off anything he might say.
“And here’s a bowl, too,” Ryan announced, lugging a brightly colored bag of food up onto the deck and setting down a metal bowl that clanged when it struck the wood.
“You said this was a male,” Josh objected. “Named Loose.”
“Yeah.” Ryan squinted at him while Josh ran his index finger along the name embroidered on the dog’s collar.
“This says Lucy. Not Loose. Lucy.”
Ryan shrugged. “Serena always called him Loose, what do I know?”
“Not him, Ryan. It’s not him. It’s her. Lucy. The female dog,” Josh corrected sharply.
“Fine.” Ryan spread his hands in a what’s the difference gesture.
“Not fine. It’s not just that she’s female. She’s obviously pregnant, can’t you see? Lucy is a pregnant female dog.”
Copyright © 2013 by W. Bruce Cameron