The Stray

Agnes puttered around her efficiency apartment. The houseplant by the window overlooking the parking lot didn’t really need more water, but she watered it anyway. She had already made the bed and washed and put away the breakfast dishes and the tiny rooms were spotless. She thought about going down to the common room, but she didn’t think she could stand another gab session with the old women or a grab session with the Viagra-enhanced old men. She eyed the TV mounted opposite the settee and wondered what was on the movie channel or HGTV. A movement outside caught her eye and she saw a pair of chickadees flitting by her window.

Suddenly, she couldn’t stand to stay inside another day. It was chilly outside, but she would bundle up. She might be old, but she could still walk without a walker or even a cane. She would go for a stroll and enjoy the Spring weather. She pulled her blue wool coat from the closet and wound a green scarf around her neck. When she had been younger, she often wore green to complement her red hair and creamy skin. Now that her hair had turned white and her complexion had sallowed, the green was just a habit, a reminder of better days.

“Where are you off to this morning, Mrs. Stimett?” One of the girls looked up as she passed the front desk. “Doctor’s appointment?

“No, Crystal, not today. I just thought I’d take a walk.” If that’s okay with you, Agnes finished silently.

“Enjoy yourself then. Do you have your life alert unit?” The girl waited for Agnes’ curt nod and returned her attention to her computer.

Agnes stomped out through the front door, muttering to herself, “I never should have moved out of my home and into this place. Bunch of prison wardens. Can’t let a woman go for a walk without an inquisition. Assisted living, my fanny. What kind of assistance do I need, anyway?”

It had been her niece’s idea, selling the house and moving into this place. Agnes had fallen and broken a hip and could no longer handle the stairs. The yard had gotten to be too much for her and, at 85 years old, her doctor didn’t think she should be living alone anymore. It had taken a lot of convincing, but they wore her down and now, here she was, a prisoner among old people. She didn’t feel old. Her hip had healed, and she was as spry as ever, wasn’t she?

The breeze coming from the direction of the bay was chilly and she drew her coat tighter around her. She had planned to walk down to the harbor, but the chill was too much for her, so she turned the opposite direction and marched along. Her hip rarely bothered her anymore and it felt good to be outside in the sunshine. She saw very few other pedestrians this morning but there were plenty of cars. At this time of morning, in early spring, the majority of the drivers were heading to work. Later, in summer, the streets and sidewalks would be packed with tourists. She liked it better now, when she had the sidewalk to herself.

After a block or two, the exercise started to warm her, and she loosened her grip on the coat. As a young girl she had never minded the cold. More than once she had gone swimming in weather chillier than this and she had even once done the Polar Bear Plunge, running with a bunch of other fools into freezing cold water in the middle of winter. Not now, though. Her blood was as thin as her hair these days and she shuddered just thinking about it.

She made it to the nearest city park and, feeling winded, decided to stop and sit on a bench. She found one overlooking the flower beds. There weren’t many flowers yet, but the bulbs were just starting to break the surface, and there would be tulips and daffodils soon. She would have to remember to come back in a week or two. It’s not like she had anything else to do.

Once she had been an avid gardener, tending her flowers and vegetables with equal fervor. The first time, about ten years before, that she hadn’t been able to put in a vegetable garden she had shrugged it off and thought, next year. But the next year she hadn’t felt up to it and then another year passed, and she found herself neglecting her weeding. Eventually she let her flowers go to seed and, by the time she sold the house, she had been forced to let a kindly neighbor come over and tidy them for prospective buyers. She had heard that the new owners had torn out all of her gardens and put in rocks. Rocks! It broke her heart and she was glad she no longer drove, or she would have been tempted to go over there and give them a piece of her mind.

She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see a small dog wandering down the path nearby, sniffing the grass with single-minded attention. She looked around and saw that she still had the park to herself. The dog must have wandered away from home; that wasn’t good. It looked too well-fed to have been on the streets long, so it probably lived nearby.

“Hey, buddy,” she crooned, slapping her leg and leaning toward the stray. It looked up, startled, and took a step back, front leg raised. It looked poised for flight.

“It’s okay, sweetie, Come here.” She patted her leg again and made kissing noises at it. It was a small dog, mostly white with patches of black near its tail. The head was all white except for a ragged splash of black across one eye as if it had gotten too near a can of paint. Its sharp ears, one black and one white, pointed towards her then flicked back as she continued to encourage it. After a few minutes, Agnes’ soft flow of words seemed to reassure it and it took a step towards her. With its head cocked, it seemed more curious than concerned now.

“That’s it, little guy,” She could see now that it was a boy. “I won’t hurt you.”

Agnes felt the chill of the bench seeping into her bones, but she waited for the dog to make up his mind to trust her. She had always had at least one dog until just before she broke her hip when her last dog had died of old age. She had been looking for a new dog when the accident happened and now she lived in a facility which prohibited dogs. Oh, some nice people came in once a month with a golden retriever, but a few minutes a month was not nearly enough time for a dog person like herself. She knew better than to rush this dog, she would wait as long as he needed her to.

It didn’t take more than fifteen minutes, after all. The dog suddenly decided she was an old friend; he bounded over and put his paws on the bench next to her and panted up into her face.

“Look at you, aren’t you a handsome little devil?” Agnes held her hand out for the dog to sniff and then scratched behind his ears. “Oh dear, you’re freezing!” The dog’s ears were cold as ice and even the hollow behind them was chilly to the touch. “We need to get you home. What’s your name, little guy?” She looked for a collar, but it had none. No collar, no tags. It might have a microchip, but there was no telling.

“I can’t leave you here, you could get hit by a car or something and you are chilled to the bone. Why don’t you come home with me and we’ll get a ride to the vet? Maybe they can find your family.”

She found a pack of saltines in her coat pocket. She carried them for nausea caused by some of her medications. She offered them to the dog, and he munched them happily. This seemed to cement their friendship and the dog didn’t fuss at all when she picked him up and tucked him into her coat. “It’s a good thing you’re so small,” she said, feeling him settle himself against her chest. “You hardly weigh a thing, in fact.” He had looked healthy enough, but he was a lot lighter than she had expected. he couldn’t weigh more than 8 or 9 pounds.

She retraced her steps to the facility, keeping the dog hidden inside her coat as she hurried past the front desk.

She rode the elevator up to her apartment and let herself in. The instant the door closed behind her, she unzipped her coat and let the dog loose to inspect the combination kitchen, living room, and bedroom. She heated a little milk in the microwave and set it down for him. He trotted over to lap some up with pleasure. Despite sharing her coat with her, the dog hadn’t warmed up at all and she worried about him. She found the veterinarian’s number in her contact list and called to make an appointment for that afternoon.

“Yes, he’s a stray,” she explained. “Some kind of terrier, maybe a bit of chihuahua. He’s very small and chilled to the bone. No collar so I hoped you could check for a microchip. Certainly, we can be there right after lunch. Thank you.” She hung up with the vet’s office and called the dog over to her. He hesitated not at all, happy to jump up on the cushion next to her and lean against her side. “Don’t worry, little guy, we’ll find your family. Anyone can see that you are well loved.”

She spent the morning with the dog, learning that he knew the basic obedience commands and was responsive and playful. At noon, she made lunch for herself and the dog, heating up a can of beef stew with more crackers. She usually ate lunch down in the meal hall for the company, but she wasn’t supposed to have this dog here and didn’t want anyone taking it off to the pound. She would turn it in if she had to, but not until the vet checked for a chip.

After lunch she bundled up again and tucked the dog under her coat, arranging the scarf to hang down to disguise the lump he made in her coat. She waved at the girls at the front desk with a curt, “Doctor’s appointment!” as she hurried by. The cab she had called was waiting at the curb and she climbed into the back seat and gave the driver the address.

“I hope you don’t mind dogs,” she said, letting the dog emerge from inside her coat. Despite the warm milk and stew and the two or three hours spent in her cozy apartment he was no warmer than he had been in the park and his cold body was making her chest ache.

“You picking one up?” the driver glanced in her rear-view mirror. “No problem, as long as it doesn’t pee in the cab. I have to charge you if you want me to wait, though.”

“Not picking one up, no, taking this little guy in,” Agnes gestured to the dog in her lap and frowned at the reflection of the driver in the mirror. “You don’t have to wait. We’ll call for a cab when we’re done. I don’t know how long we will be.”

“Okaaay,” the driver drawled out and returned her attention to the road.

The trip to the vet took less than twenty minutes and soon Agnes was inside, the dog securely zipped into her coat once more. Without a collar and leash, it was the easiest way to transport the dog, despite the chill.

She filled out the forms the receptionist gave her and waited to be called back. She hadn’t been to this vet since putting Opal down two years ago and she didn’t like the memories that kept coming back. When they called her name, she followed the tech back to the exam room where she was left alone to wait for the vet. It reminded her of a doctor’s visit, but at least she didn’t have to strip for this one. She unzipped the coat and placed the stray on the exam table, gently fondling his ears and soothing him with murmured nonsense.

“Hello, again, Mrs. Stimett. I hear you have found a stray.” The vet bustled into the room, his eyes on the clipboard in his hands.

“I have, he looks like he’s in good shape, but he didn’t have a collar or tag and he was freezing. I thought maybe he might have a microchip like Opal used to have. You can check for one, can’t you? Also, I’m worried about him. He’s been inside for a couple of hours and he’s still really cold.”

The vet looked up and smiled into her eyes. His hair had started to turn gray at the temples in the last couple of years, but the kindness in his expression was the same. “Sounds good. So, where is he?” The vet looked around the room, his gaze sweeping over the stray without any sign of recognition.

“What do you mean? He’s right here,” Agnes said, gently pushing the dog towards the doctor as he scrabbled on the metal table to return to her. The scraping of his claws was loud in the quiet room.

A look of concern crossed the vet’s face as he looked down at her. “Mrs. Stimett, I’m confused. Where is the dog?”

What was wrong with him? She picked up the dog and thrust it at the vet, annoyed. “He’s right here,” she said, sharply. “Are you blind?”

The vet took a step back and raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Mrs. Stimett, calm down.”

Agnes huffed, “Calm down? What are you talking about? Are you going to examine this dog or not?”

“Can you wait here a moment, ma’am?” The vet backed away and left the room, leaving Agnes alone and annoyed. What kind of game was this? Was the vet teasing her? But why? He had never acted like that when he had taken care of Opal or her other dogs. She had been coming to him for over twenty years now and he’d never done anything so silly before.

“I don’t know what possessed the man, little guy, but he’ll be right back, and we’ll get you home soon, okay?” She crooned to the dog and nuzzled his neck.

The door opened and the vet returned with one of the techs, a blonde Agnes couldn’t remember seeing before. “I wonder if you could hand the dog to my tech, Mrs. Stimett. She will help take his temperature and so on.”

Agnes shrugged and held out the dog to the tech who made no move to take him. Instead, she gave Agnes a look of sympathy and turned to the doctor with a shake of her head.

“Never mind, Cindy,” the vet said, his voice grave. “I’ll manage.” Cindy left the room without another word.

“Mrs. Stimett, can I ask you a rather personal question?” The vet sat down on a rolling stool and leaned on the exam table, inches from the dog who sniffed his arm.

“Certainly, if it will help move this along. I need to get back to the facility.” Agnes folded her hands in front of her, keeping an eye on the dog between them.

“Facility? That’s right, I saw that you have moved into assisted living. Are you, perhaps, on any medication?” The vet ignored the dog which was now snuffling at his fingers splayed on the table in front of him.

“Why would you ask such a thing? Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I’m not. Just a little something for hypertension, but that’s all. Agnes was really getting annoyed now. Why was it that when a soul gets a little older everyone thinks they are feeble? “I broke my hip eighteen months ago and had to have help with a few things, but otherwise I’m healthy as a horse.”

“Good, good,” the vet nodded, then continued. “So, no trouble with memory or anything?”

“What is this? I came in here for your services as a vet, not a doctor. Why don’t you check this dog for a microchip and let me get out of here?” Agnes spoke sharply, lowering her voice when the dog flinched at her harsh tone.

“Mrs. Stimett, Agnes, I can’t examine a dog I can’t see.”

“You can’t see him? What do you mean, you can’t see him? He’s right here!” She pointed dramatically to the dog who touched her outstretched finger with his cold nose.

“Is there someone I can call for you, Mrs. Stimett? Someone from the home, perhaps?”

“I don’t know why you’re playing this silly game, but this isn’t funny. And it’s not a home, it’s an assisted living facility. I’m not senile and I’m not taking drugs. If you aren’t going to help me, then we’ll just go.” She reached for the dog and tucked him into her coat. “I don’t appreciate being teased, doctor, and I’m shocked to see you behaving this way.”

Despite the vet’s protests, she swept from the room and stood by the door, fuming, as she waited for a cab to arrive to take her home.

Once inside the cab, she pulled the dog from her coat and held him up so the driver couldn’t possibly miss him in the rear-view mirror. “Tell me, what do you see here, young man?”

The driver glanced back and asked, “What do you mean, ma’am?”

“What is this thing I’m holding up?” she asked, her voice demanding.

“Your scarf?” the driver said, confused

“Harumph!” Agnes said, but doubt had started to creep in. First the vet, then the tech, and now the cab. Certainly, if the vet were playing an odd and unfunny joke, he might have convinced his tech to join in, but the cabby wouldn’t be in on it. She had heard the girl make the call and she had said nothing to him about her dog. “Never mind, just get me home. I think I need to lie down.”

Back home again, she took a chance and walked into the lobby with the dog under her arm, in full view. No one commented. The girls behind the desk greeted her cheerily and said nothing about the dog even when she lifted him up towards them.

“Can I help you with something, Mrs. Stimett?” one of them asked.

“No, nothing,” Agnes muttered and hurried into the common room. She put the dog on the table in front of a couple of old coots putting a puzzle together. The dog sat down in the middle of the puzzle and scratched behind his ear. Neither of the men reacted. She took him over to the couch where two women were chatting. She sat down on the end of the couch and watched as the dog sniffed at the woman nearest her and licked her elbow. The woman’s only reaction was to pull her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

“Hello, Agnes,” the woman said, “I didn’t see you at lunch today. Is it just me or is it chilly in here suddenly?”

“I ate in my room,” Agnes answered curtly and scooped the dog up again. No matter where the dog went, or how he behaved, no one noticed. If the dog jumped into a lap or got too near one of the residents or staff, they would shiver or show other signs of being cold, but otherwise there was no reaction.

“I’m losing my mind,” Agnes muttered to herself and headed to her room with the dog. “There is no other explanation.” Except, that didn’t explain why the dog’s proximity made people cold. She was starting to have a suspicion, but the thought was almost worse than the idea that she was hallucinating.

“I refuse to believe that I’m losing my mind,” she told the dog when they reached her room. She gazed down at the dog who tilted his head at her, a merry expression in his eyes. “You seem real enough to me, and those people reacted to you even if they can’t see or hear you.” She thought of shows she had seen over the years and a thought slowly came to her. “There was a story I saw once where a woman was being haunted by a sea captain. She was the only one who could see him, but he could make other people feel his presence. He made them cold, too.” She sat down hard, staring at the dog who stared back, his eyes dark and liquid.

“You couldn’t be,” she said, slowly, but what other explanation was there? She wasn’t crazy. She felt as sane as she ever had, and people had reacted to him even if they couldn’t see him. “You couldn’t be a ghost, there are no such things, especially dog ghosts.”

The dog sneezed and shook himself. He jumped up next to her and laid a paw on her knee.

“If you are a ghost, there must be something you want. What do you want from me?” The dog jumped down and trotted to the plastic bowl she had filled with stew for him earlier. He returned and laid it at her feet.

Agnes laughed, suddenly feeling lighter than she had in years.

“Okay, then. Ghost dog, let’s get you fed. More stew, okay?” She heated up a bit of stew for the dog and ladled it into his bowl. She would have to do a little shopping tomorrow. She wondered what brand of dog food a ghost dog would prefer.

“At least I won’t have any trouble with the staff. The facility has no rules against ghost dogs, now do they?” She laughed and the ghost dog laughed with her. “I think I’ll call you Casper.”

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