Jack unlocked the door and let Maya into the house first. She moved gracefully from room to room, sniffing and poking her nose into every nook and cranny until she was satisfied that she had a good understanding of the lay of this new arrangement and then she curled up on the rug next to his spot on the couch. He had forgotten how nice it was to have an animal companion. Normally he worked pretty long hours and he didn’t think it would be fair to bring a pet into his life, but this temporary arrangement was good and he was glad for her company, however brief.
He took his boots off by the door and came to sit beside her, thinking over the events of the past few weeks. “Well old girl… now what?” he asked, scratching behind her ears. She sat up on her haunches looking at him, head cocked to one side calmly and he stared back at her, pensive. He could swear sometimes that she really did understand his words. She turned her head to look out the window and then back to him. “You want to go for a walk?” he asked. Maya stood up and wagged her tail.
He clipped the leash to her collar and left his socks inside his boots. Stepping into a comfortable pair of flip flops he left outside the door for times when he took out the trash, he pushed the button for the garage door opener and walked onto the driveway. The night was warm and the air was moist and soft. The sun had just slipped below the horizon and there was a line of clouds that ran in a parallel layer to the corn field at the end of the street. The underside was lit up and glowing orange and it looked like a painting above that, as though someone had taken a paintbrush and swished it over a dark blue sky, leaving behind trails of red, aqua, pink and yellow. He took a deep breath and shoved one hand in his pocket, then set out for the field with Maya close by his side.
The streetlights were just coming on around the neighborhood and he could hear crickets and frogs beginning their nightly chorus. It was a beautiful sound and he searched his memory for the last time he’d noticed it. Maya’s nose was glued to the ground as they walked and he smiled, watching her. He wondered what it was like to have such heightened senses and what information about his home she was gleaning from the way everything smelled. Whatever it was, she seemed to be enjoying it as much as he was. It felt good to stretch his legs and fill his lungs with fresh air. She was already a good influence on him. He hadn’t taken a walk, just for the sake of enjoying the night, since some time late last fall.
He thought of Annie, wondering where she was and how he could ever go on to live a normal life, without her and with no answers to his questions. He felt her absence so keenly, now that he was back home again surrounded by her things. She’d been missing for more than a year and it left a gaping hole inside of him, with no way to close it. They had opened an investigation into her disappearance and for weeks, volunteers in the community had searched for her, but they hadn’t turned up a single clue as to what might have happened. It was the most baffling case the town had ever encountered, with nothing to go on, no motive or sign of foul play, and no conclusion. Everyone loved her. No one could even imagine wanting to do her harm. It was the worst kind of mystery…one that was yet unsolved.
He looked to either side of him at all the homes lining the street, their cheery interiors lit up and his neighbors going about their nightly routines. It was something he and Annie had always enjoyed, making up stories about what was going on in each of the homes… what they were cooking, who they were in love with, what kinds of things they enjoyed doing. They knew some of the stories, some beautiful and some very sad. He had always been grateful that their own story was one of the good ones. It was stunning how quickly things could derail.
Jack walked Maya around the entire neighborhood soaking in the very last of the day’s light. When he was almost home he waved to the widow across the street sitting out in her little garden, a pitcher of iced tea on the small table beside her. It was such a welcome sight in a world that no longer valued stillness. She waved back and asked quietly if he’d like to sit for a bit. He wandered up the drive and Maya went straight up to the woman and yipped a happy bark, friendly and encouraging. She leaned down to say hello and got a paw in return. It made her laugh and the sound rang clearly into the night. “Did you get a new dog, Jack? She’s beautiful!”
“Ah, no, she belongs to a friend but she’s a wonderful house guest so far. It was her idea to get out here and enjoy this beautiful night!”
Karen was a woman who spoke her mind freely and he had always admired it in her. She kept her husband’s old car in her garage, even though he had been gone now for many years and he would sometimes take it out and clean it up for her, starting the engine and making sure it was still in decent working order. She had a good heart and was a strong person for whom he felt a great deal of affection. She often did little things for others in the neighborhood without expecting anything in return and she was a hard worker. Her home was surrounded by the most beautiful well kept gardens in the neighborhood.
They chatted for a minute or two, enjoying the sound of the frogs and the howl of several coyotes off in the distance somewhere. “Any news about Annie?” There it was. The dreaded question everyone felt terrible about asking and even worse about not asking. It was such an impossible situation. He shook his head and swallowed the lump in his throat again, wishing with all that he was, that he could answer her definitively. Not just for himself, but for all of them. He knew their community felt the loss of her too.
Karen and Annie had made a routine of sitting on the little bench down by the river, having coffee once a week or so. He could see that she missed her friend and he wished he could offer some comfort. He had made that bench for Annie himself and painted it the color of sea slate, a gray misty shade she had loved when they’d gone shopping for the finish. She thought it looked like something a weathered old sea captain would paint his rowboat with, soft like the fog that hung thick over the Atlantic Ocean, near Cape Cod. He had taken it out front and laid it on some old cardboard in the grass and carved a heart into the middle of the seat back before spraying it. Karen had wandered over to talk to him while he worked that day. It was a sweet memory and he wondered if she remembered it too.
Annie loved that bench and took her coffee out there every morning to watch the wildlife. He placed it under the weeping willow tree she planted for him as a gift the year she had married him. It was down at the water’s edge and had grown to more than twenty feet tall though it was only a three foot stick coming out of the ground when she’d planted it. She said it was going to grow old with them and that some day it would protect them from the Russian subs lurking in the river, spying on them. The first time she’d said it with a straight face, he’d spit out his coffee and she did nothing more than raise an eyebrow. “I’m not kidding, she said. You cannot be too careful about these things.” Those mornings were the best mornings of his life and that bench could stay there forever, as far as he was concerned.
He took one last swallow of his tea, hoping the lump would disappear with it… but it remained. Missing her was just a part of living now. He put a brave face on and smiled at Karen, moving to get up off the chair and head home where he could be alone with his thoughts. She laid her hand on his knee and said softly, “Jack… don’t try so hard, okay?” Looking at him kindly, she shrugged. “You know I understand how it feels to go home to an empty house.” And it suddenly became too much for him. He sat back down in the chair again with his head in his hands, giving in to the sobs for the second time in a month.
She rubbed his back without a word and Maya lay down at his feet, her soft wet nose touching his ankle. The night closed in on the three of them softly, stars winking down in silent observance.