Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Andy rolled over, pulling the light quilt along with him, then yanking the quilt over his head like a monk’s cowl. The room was filled with dazzling lemony sunlight though it was only seven or so in the morning. And Saturday!
‘Darn, not again,’ he thought, ‘I know I closed those curtains before getting into bed last night.’ He peeked an eye out from his blankey-cave and turned curiously back towards the window.
As usual, the cheery cacophony of bird voices wafted in through the east facing window. He recognized just about all of them, a hobby of his: the sweet peeping of house wrens, the singsong warbling of colorful goldfinches and the repetitive trilling of magpies. The entire symphony of birds didn’t disturb his rest in the least, even the obnoxious raspy, ‘cheeeeeep’ that punctuated the melodies like an out of tune tuba. He found the morning birdsong to be as meditative as the night’s, though the night had the added bonus of crickets and his favorite, owls.
The sleep stealing culprit was Ralph, his dog. He’d pulled the entire right side of the curtain aside and was staring out into the yard.
Ralph was a scruffy Jack Russell terrier with a mind of his own and a personality as delightful as a basket of baby chicks. Andy’s mom said he must be part cat, because he was master of ‘the art of selective deafness.’
“Oh Ralphie, not again,” moaned Andy. “It’s too early. And Saturday. Lemme sleep some more.”
Ralph was a statue except for one brief ear flicker.
“Know you hear me,” Andy said as he turned all the way over to observe his dog. “You’re so weird.” He mumbled. “Great. Now I gotta pee.”
The ten-year-old boy grabbed a hoodie from the bedpost and sleepily sluffed into it. It was two weeks from summer vacation and would be hot out by 9am, but at seven, it was chilly. He pushed his feet into his plush red Angry Bird slippers and headed for the door. “You comin? You wanna go out?”
The small white and brown dog at last tore his gaze from the window and turned his deep chocolate eyes to his boy. As usual he was grinning, and Andy’s annoyance melted away like butter in a hot iron skillet. Ralph cocked his head the way Jack Russell’s do, just like the one in that old RCA ad with the phonograph. Andy knew the logo art was called, ‘His Master’s Voice’ because he collected memorabilia and stuff regarding that particular breed of dog.
The choice of dog breed had been his. After careful consideration, much googling and wikapedia-ing, Andy decided the smarter the dog the better.
He knew a smart dog would catch on to training and tricks faster than a dumber breed. The size, about 16 to 18 pounds when full grown, was perfect too, he could take Ralph just about anywhere.
Added bonus- not only was Ralph allowed to sleep on Andy’s bed, he did not hog it either.
“Maybe a dumber dog would have been better.” He teased Ralph, “A big goofy Irish Setter or something.”
Ralph cocked his head the other way as if trying to figure out what his boy was saying.
The pup knew what that meant and decided it was his window of opportunity to go outside and pee.
After letting Ralph out the back door, Andy went back down the hall to use the bathroom. When he was done, he knew he was up for good. He returned to his room and grabbed yesterday’s cargo shorts off the floor. They had some grass stains- he and his chums had played red rover during their lunch break- but he didn’t care. He put on a fresh tee-shirt though, relishing the cleanly scented cotton and the softness of many washes.
Mom had left a note on the kitchen table, ‘Andy, here’s ten bucks. Please get milk and oj. Love M’, complete with her signature smiley face.
He stuffed the ten in his pocket and did the math automatically- 3.50 for oj, 3.00 for milk…he’d have 3.50 left for himself.
That was always the deal. ‘You fly, I buy, keep the change kid.’
‘Cool’, he thought. I can get a new deck of cards. He’d been practicing cards tricks for a month and his old deck had too many bent corners and was missing one of the jacks.
“C’mon Ralph, goin’ to the store…” he kept his voice down. Mom had worked a double the night before and relished a good sleep as much as he did.
It had been a good day. Full of fresh air and bicycle races with Richie and Sam, his two best friends.
Bird watching in the woods behind their house, Andy enjoyed pointing out various breeds and calls. The grassy, woodsy scent of summer a constant reminder that school would be out soon.
A lot of kids in Andy’s grade were gamers. Even if Andy’s mom could afford a game console – the cool kind- he pretty much thought all video games were a humongous waste of time. Besides, all the gamers had pasty skin, often decorated with premature pimples, and pale doughy bodies. He figured in about a hundred years, gamers would be a whole different genus of human being. They didn’t even speak the same language.
Hitting softballs and playing cowboys, his bike his horse and Ralph as his fearless sidekick, was more his style. Playing spacemen was another favorite.
That night, Mom set up the tv trays in the living room. Every Saturday night they watched Svenghoulie together while eating hungry man dinners.
There’d be pudding or jello for dessert too, with cool whip! The old-timey movies were awesome, usually black and white, and always creepy. The narrator, Svenghoulie, was hysterical!
Mom said, “Oh! I remember this one! Actually saw it in a drive-in.” Tonight’s movie was The Blob, and as usual she added, “You sure this won’t give you nightmares?”
“No Mom, I’m cool.” He said, eyes glued to the outdated tv set, “Ralph will protect me.”
Two hours later they said goodnight, did their nighttime bathroom rituals, and went to their rooms. Andy left the window open but closed the curtains snugly. Mom and son went to church on Sundays, but service wasn’t until 10am. They agreed to sleep in until 9, skip breakfast, and eat a big lunch afterwards. Maybe even a picnic by the shady pond in the woods.
At 7am shards of brilliant sunlight battered Andy’s eyelids, his inside view was bright orangey-red. The Blob in his dream vanishing like the Cheshire Cat, the last part of the hungry creature to faint into invisibility was a mouthful of shark’s teeth. (In Andy’s nightmares, all the monsters had shark’s teeth, stained crimson and dripping with stringy saliva.)
“Ral-phieeeeeee…seriously?” He whined to the dog, who once again was sitting in the window, the sunlight streaming around him like the bright ethereal luminescence of God’s robes.
Ralph sat still as a grave marker, staring out into the woods.
“Ugh.” Grunted Andy as he rolled over, putting the warmth to his back.
Andy sat at the kitchen table while his mom finished up loading the picnic basket- tuna sandwiches, potato chips for him, Smart Food popcorn for her, sliced apples, with caramel sauce for dipping. “Ralph’s been super weird lately.”
“Wierder than normal?” She asked.
“Well, yeah. He does this thing where he opens the curtain and stares out the window…,” Andy said, then added, “He’s done it for over a week now. He just sits there, looking at the forest, doesn’t move at all when I call him…“
“That Selective Deafness Cat Syndrome, eh?” she said, not suppressing a grin.
Andy didn’t smile back. The grin faltered then withered all together.
Andy said, “And, it’s exactly seven every time. It’s totally creeping me out..” His voice wavered as he looked down at the hands wringing in his lap.
His mom came over then, concerned more for Andy than the dog. “Would you feel better if we took him to see the vet?”
“Mom, we can’t afford that. Besides the vet won’t find anything physically wrong.” Andy sighed, “Maybe an exorcist…”
This time his mother had a hard time suppressing a laugh, she had to bite her cheeks. She let out a gush of relief when Andy tittered a bit himself.
“How about the next time he does his weird window- staring thing you come get me? I wanna see this thing for myself. Then we’ll take it from
there. It’s probably just a phase…or a cat thing. They’ve been known to freak people out by staring at closets and whatnot.”
That night, Andy again closed the curtains. He thought about safety pinning them shut but decided that he really wanted Mom to see the odd, creepy behavior.
The boy was rudely awoken by bright light pounding on his eyelids like a madman axing a door. His eyes felt puffy. He felt unnaturally weary,
‘Hope I’m not getting a cold,’ he thought. Something was not right. The room simmered with wrongness. The curtain was open, the bright light dazzling.
But for the first time in a week, Ralph was not sitting there.
Andy glanced at the vintage, black-faced Westclox on his nightstand, knowing it was 7am again.
It was 3am!
He sat bolt upright as if yanked up on puppet strings. His heart hammered like a ten-foot hummingbird. His flesh prickled, just like his shins had prickled when he had accidentally run through a patch of stinging nettles in the forest.
The light suddenly winked out, leaving spots in his vision. “I’m dreaming, that’s all. Just a crazy dream.” Andy reached down to the foot of the bed in the inky darkness.
Ralph was not there.
The bedroom door was still closed. The panicking boy leapt out of bed and stumbled over a sneaker, nearly braining himself on the windowsill.
He caught himself and leaned out on shakey arms as far as he could. ‘Ralph could have jumped out, it was only a one-story home. But why would he?
He’s never done that before. That bright light had to of been a dream, right?’ With mounting alarm, he realized there were no night sounds. The air was a dead lead curtain- no crickets, no whip-or-wills, no tree frogs- just nothing.
He screamed then, “MOM!!! MOOOOOOOM!!!”
Andy slumped at the kitchen table. It was four in the morning. His small hands cradled a cup of warm milk. Through his nostrils, he sucked in great gobs of snot.
“As soon as it’s light out- only an hour and a half- we go look for Ralph, ok?”
Andy only nodded.
She had talked him out of going into the woods in the dark but had allowed him to search the small property with a flashlight. While her son searched outside, she had gotten into jeans, a sweatshirt, and her grubby old Vans. She braced herself for the dreadful cry of anguish, Ralph’s mutilated body discovered.
She flashed back to nine years earlier. She’d had a dog. She never spoke of him, no point really. Andy had been only one when Bernie died and had no memory of the kind and gentle beagle mix. The dog had been Joseph’s, but it was clear from the start, the sad-eyed pup was hers.
Joseph was NOT a good man. Dogs know instantly, people can take decades.
The blood in her urine was the last straw. He beat her, he beat the dog. What would he do to their baby son? She had packed up her little Toyota with necessities, that included Bernie.
She’d found this small but cozy, clean home reasonably offered for rent. The tidy lot was a half-acre, with town just two miles away, and lush green woods edging the back of the property. Just the place a boy would be stoked to grow up in. When Andy was just past his first birthday, Bernie got himself killed.
The old kitchen door had had a doggie flap in it, Bernie came and went as he pleased. He never wandered too far. Marie-Claire had scolded him a few times at first, and he seemed content to rule the yard. He’d been about eleven and had not lost even an ounce of puppy essence, the one where every butterfly chase was the first.
One night a screeching, hissing sound woke her. The sound like a storage unit filled with Tasmanian devils! Then she’d heard Bernie’s frantic barks. Barks so unlike his normal beagle ululating. She’d never forget the scream. She had had to find Bernie, though she had known he was gone.
The tiniest flame of hope had flickered on, like a miniature lantern held by an elf.
She had found the body, ragged and bloody, gutted by sharp feral claws. The loss was a permanent hole punched in her heart.
On this terrible night, she empathized with her young son. But his wail of despair never came.
At the first light, Marie-Claire and Andy crossed the yard and tromped through the woods, sticking to the deer paths that wove through the dense vegetation like an enormous spider’s web. Each went a mile in different directions until all the forested land was covered. At 10am they’d tiredly given up.
At noon, Andy rode his bike into town. He peddled fast to keep his eyes dry, choking on sobs when he looked down- no spunky little sidekick, no best friend keeping pace. He posted flyers all around town. Solicitation ads were strictly forbidden, even fined, but lost pet flyers were allowed, neighbors commiserated together. The sad boy asked any and all who’d listen, if they’d seen a wire-haired brown and white spotted Jack Russell Terrier.
As townsfolk shook their heads dolefully, he pointed to his telephone number on the sheet, just in case.
Every day after school he rode through town, not really expecting any luck, but too restless to sit at home and dwell on his depression. After two weeks his hope petered out, like the last sliver of orangey sun dipping below the horizon.
It tortured her entire being- hearing her son softly sobbing every night as he sat by his window, his eyes straining to see a flash of white fur in the moonlight.
“We’ll get another dog,” Marie-Claire said one morning at the table, then quickly added, “only when you’re ready of course.”
“I keep expecting to see Ralph running up the driveway to greet me after school.” Andy said, fresh tears burning tracks down his baby soft cheeks.
They both knew he wasn’t ready for a new dog; he knew she was trying to cheer him up.
“That’s why you haven’t had Richie or Sam over isn’t it?” Mom intuition.
Andy nodded, “It’s not that I’m afraid to cry around them. Richie was a wreck after Cooper died. I just don’t want them to feel bad. Sadness is uncomfortable to be around.”
Mom had to turn to her potato peeling then, her turn to only nod. He sounded forty.
That night, Andy left his curtains open, as he did every night now. He still wondered about that weird light he had dreamed about at 3am. Deep down he knew it was connected to Ralph’s disappearance, but he chased those imaginative thoughts out of his mind like a mob armed with pitchforks.
Thoughts like that froze the blood of his body and brought the taste of bile to his throat. He dreamt of circular metal ships and big-eyed stick figures with shiny titanium shark’s teeth.
Morning brightness pressed against his eyelids.
When he realized it was not warm summer sunlight his eyes flew open like pistol shots. It was unnaturally silent again, just as before- no crickets, no owl, no lullabying birds. It was just as it had been two weeks before and he knew when he looked at the clock it would 3am. He was paralyzed with dread, while his guts vibrated like live wires. ‘Will they take me now too? And who, exactly, are they?’
His room was northest Siberia, his toes in danger of frostbite, and his teeth chattered like the windup ones they sold at the magic and gift shop. He turned and reached for the hoody on his bedpost.
When he turned back to the brightly lit window Ralph was there!
Just before the light winked out, Andy noted that Ralph was not statue-still this time. His stubby, sausage-like tail whapped uncontrollably against the floor making soft wup wup wup sounds.
In the pitch darkness, Andy whispered, “Ralphie?”
Ralphie was not cat-like either, he happily bounded over in two strides and leapt up to the bed.
The crickets outside started up as Andy found the light-switch. He hugged Ralph so hard the dog made a wheeze and a yip.
“Sorry boy, “said Andy. He looked into Ralph’s furry face…something was odd. But whatever it was eluded him, the small bedside lamp shed little light. Andy tilted the shade towards Ralph, but he still couldn’t put a finger on the oddness.
“Where have you been?” Andy asked, agog with pure bliss- his best friend was home!
‘The eyes!’ he thought.
They used to be such a dark shade of brown they looked black in low light. The dog’s eyes now swam with flecks of gold, the amber irises glowed as if not from the moonlight coming in in window, but from within the dog’s very essence. Genius eyes. He didn’t know what that meant, only that it felt right. Just like you knew Yoda was super smart before he even opened his little green mouth.
“Did you have an exciting adventure?” Andy’s eyes widened with wonder as Ralph nodded.
‘ Freaky coincidence,’ thought Andy.
“Where did you go? Oh, wait- that’s dumb. You can’t talk. Can you?”
Ralph shook his head left to right.
“But you really do understand me, don’tchoo boy?”
Ralph nodded. Tail thumping on the quilt.