My ears prick forward as a familiar tingle passes down my spine, setting the fur on end. “They’re home!” I yelp, leaping to my paws. It has been a long time, too long, since the Family left. Never before have They been gone this long, not without taking me with Them. I bound from my kennel, startling Loki. She’s bathing in the sun, long body stretched out full length and tail twitching, lost in dreams of mice. I awaken her with a bark.
“They’re coming,” I tell her.
She opens one eye and rewards me with a yawn. “I know,” she says, “I’ve known it for a while. Us cats, we know these things. We just don’t care.”
I ignore her, too delighted in the prospect of Their return to even wonder why They left me behind. Soon the Boy will be back and we will chase each other around the park and I will catch His flying discs. The Family is the Pack, but my Boy is my life. In all of my memories He is there.
I have missed Him.
The Metal-Machine seems to take forever to arrive. I race up and down the barrier, while Loki watches on with disinterest. And then suddenly They’re here and I’m almost jumping over the barrier in my delight at seeing the Boy once more.
Only, something’s wrong.
The Boy doesn’t come bursting out of the Metal-Machine. He steps out slowly, like He has suddenly become old, like the Pack-matron that sometimes visits. I rush to greet Him, bowling through the gate as the Father pushes it open.
“Calm Duke,” He shouts, but I am too excited to be calm. The Boy is back! I bound around Him, jumping up to place my paws upon His shoulder, hugging Him as the rest of the Family do.
And He pushes me away.
“No Duke,” He says and it is then I realize something is wrong. Something is very wrong. He doesn’t smell like the Boy anymore, not like sweat and dirt and soap. He smells wrong, there’s a trace of the smell-that-makes-my-nose-burn, like after the Mother has sprayed and wiped everything. I recoil back, distressed. His smell is Him, is this not Him anymore? What has happened? “Oh Duke,” He says, stepping forward. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Only, I’m …” He falters, face twisting and the fear-smell rising from Him. “I’m sick, Dukey. Very sick.”
I don’t know why He’s so sad. He’s been sick before – last winter He was all spotty and itchy. But never before has He been this afraid. What is He afraid of? I whimper, I can’t help myself.
He pats me on the head, rubbing my ears. Even His touch seems weaker. I wonder what has happened to Him. Is He suddenly growing old? I don’t know. Where did They take him? It must have been somewhere Bad. He tries to walk and stumbles. The Mother catches him by His arm and helps Him down the path and into the House. I pad along beside Him, subdued now, confused. Even Loki is watching, her eyes narrow and her tail twitching. And a cat twitching her tail is not like a dog wagging his. My tail is not wagging. I feel queasy, like I’ve eaten one of the multi-leggers and it’s wiggling inside me.
They won’t let me inside, even though the Boy tries to persuade Them to. I’m not used to being shut out and I pace around the house, trying to peer in the windows. Loki’s always one paw ahead of me. They can’t stop her getting inside. She has a special door. I tried to go through it once, before I got so big, and I still remember the feeling of it locked about my shoulders. I will not try it again. Instead I sit on the doorstep and bark. How dare They shut me out when my Boy needs me?
The fat-lady-over-the-barrier shouts at me, telling me to “SHUT UP!” I know what that means, but I don’t need to listen to her, she’s not Family, not my Pack.
After a while Loki pads back out.
“Well?” I ask her, “what are they doing? Are they hurting Him?”
She stares at me, her eyes are bright and cold and her tail still twitches. She is not happy.
“They’re not hurting him Duke,” she says. “It’s worse than that.”
My ears go flat and my hackles rise. What can be worse than pain? I cannot speak, I merely stare at her.
“He’s dying,” she says, and glances away, pretending to groom her tail. I know it’s not feline vanity though, she’s shocked by this news.
And I don’t even know what she means.
“Dying? What is dying?” I have never heard this word before.
She stops, staring at me, surprised. “Dying,” she explains, “is ceasing to be.” She likes to use long words, and I still don’t know what she means. She realizes this, “remember the black cat?”
I think back, think hard. And I do remember. It was a long time ago, I had not even grown into my paws. And a black cat came to the Garden. He was old, very old, with eyes almost white with blindness and big bare patches of fur. I didn’t like him and had chased him away. But he kept coming back and sometimes he stole my food.
Then there was a really cold night, so cold that the Family let me sleep inside by the fire. When I went out in the morning he lay on the grass, covered in ice, all stiff and cold. When I touched him with my nose he didn’t move. The Family had found him and the Boy had buried him beneath the sharp-smelling tree.
Is the Boy going to become cold and stiff and no longer move? How can He? That is something that happens to the lonely, the lost, the unloved. The Boy is none of that. I love Him, the Parents love Him. I am even fairly sure Loki feels a grudging affection for Him.
Then a more horrifying thought occurs to me. Will they put the Boy in the ground too? Bury Him like a bone? It doesn’t feel right, somehow. He is not a bone, nor an old, blind cat. He is the Boy, my Boy.
I hope that Loki is lying.
But I know that she is not.
It grows dark now and They have still not let me inside, nor has the Boy come out to see me. I know that something is wrong. I curl up on the doorstep, head on my paws and dream terrible dreams where I’m burying a bone but it’s not really a bone, it’s my Boy.
I am woken by someone calling me by my Family name.
“Duke, come on in boy.” It is the Mother. She holds the door open and calls me inside. I am delighted. Maybe the Boy is well again. As I pad inside I realize even the House feels wrong. The smells are weird, a mix of dust and nasty-nose-burning-sprays, but it is more than that. There is a gloom in the air, as though the House Itself is ill. The mood and health of the Family affects Their den.
The Boy is sitting on the couch, staring at flickering images on the gibberish-box. He is wrapped in blankets and poking a fork into a plateful of pancakes. My stomach rumbles. I have not eaten since the fat-lady-from-over-the-barrier poured me some crunchies yesterday morning. The Boy does not seem to be hungry at all. He stabs at His food but does not eat it. I walk towards Him, the carpet soft beneath my feet, and lay one paw on His lap. He smiles at me. It is a sad smile, the sort that people make when they are not happy but they want other people to think that they are.
“I’m sorry I can’t take you to the park,” He says. He pats my head and strokes my ears. I nuzzle His chin, telling him that I still love Him and I don’t want Him to be cold and stiff and not move. I want Him to run with me in the park and throw the flying disc for me to chase. I want to wrestle Him in the sunshine.
I also want His pancakes. He is not eating them and they should not go to waste. I cannot talk to Him in the way in which I talk to Loki, but He understands me better then anyone. With a glance towards the door – to make sure the Mother is not watching, He rolls up one the pancakes and holds it out to me. I wolf it down, sickly syrup trickling down my muzzle and caking in my fur. It tastes good, even more-so because it came from the Boy.
He grins at me, showing His teeth in His happy way. Then His face twists and He presses His hand to His mouth and staggers to His feet. His plate and blankets fall to one side. He staggers only a few paces, making horrible jerking movements with His shoulders (like Loki when she has a hairball) and drops to His knees. A sour smell fills the air as He heaves and heaves, throwing up what little He has eaten.
In a bound I am at His side, nudging him and gagging at the foul aroma wafting from the puddle He has made.
“Mum,” He calls, His cheeks wet with moisture. Then another seizure grabs Him and He heaves and shudders again, although this time nothing comes out.
The Mother comes and She sees me leaning beside Him, sees me sniffing the rancid puddle. It is not natural, there is another odour in it. That nasty-nose-burning smell. And blood. He is bleeding from His mouth. I snarl, glancing about, looking for what is making Him sick so I can bite it and chase it away. But there is nothing.
“Duke!” The Mother shouts at me, although I have done nothing, “get away from him. Oh I shouldn’t have let you inside. Out, get out!”
I don’t know all of what She says, but I know what “out” means. She is angry at me, and I must have done something bad, but what have I done? Was it because I ate His food? Even though He fed it to me? I am no longer hungry, but confused and hurt. I must obey the Mother.
I walk outside.
The Father takes me for my Walk after I have eaten my midday crunchies. He walks fast, dragging me away from every tantalizing scent and anything interesting. It seems that, unlike the Boy, He does not understand that my Walk is more to let me see and explore my greater territory then it is to make me walk until I am exhausted. We come to the Park, where the Boy and I often play Chase, but He drags me past. The walk is too short, too quick and does nothing to calm me. The Father seems distracted and smells so very sad. He releases me in the garden and hurries back inside, pushing me aside before I have the chance to follow Him.
I sit in the garden and bark. I am lonely, I miss my Boy, and I am lost and confused. Did I somehow make Him sick? Why do They seem to hate me now, when before They loved me? The fat-lady-over-the-barrier shouts at me and throws something at me, an old shoe. This gives me something to chew and distracts me for a time, which is very nice of her.
Several days pass. I am not good at keeping track of the days, unlike Loki and the Family. I merely know that something is going wrong inside the House. The Father comes out and drives away in the Metal-Machine every morning, just like He always used to, but I only see the Mother when She feeds me. And I do not see the Boy at all. Sometimes I feel like He is calling to me, and I prick my ears, hoping to hear His voice. Loki is still allowed inside, she wanders in and out and passes me messages from the Boy. He is missing me, she says, and often asks the Mother if He can see me. But the Mother will not let Him.
She says I will “over excite him”. I do not know what She means. I can be a Good Dog and I won’t jump all over him. I just want to see Him again, to nuzzle Him and let Him know that I still love Him.
That afternoon the Mother goes out. It is the first time She has left the House since my Boy became sick. I watch Her leave and chew on the old shoe. And then the front door opens. I jump to my feet, tail wagging, because there is only one person it can be and that is my Boy. I bound to greet Him, but calm myself as I near Him. He does not look or smell well. His eyes are huge and He is as thin and fragile as the baby birds Loki likes to play with. He leans on the door, reeking of sickness and fear. And sadness.
“Oh Dukey,” He whispers, crouching down to rub my ears and hug me. His grip is weak. I lick His cheek, letting Him know that I still love Him, even if he isn’t the Boy He used to be. “It’s terrible,” He whispers in my ear, “you’re my best friend and they won’t even let me see you. But I wanted to say goodbye.” I nuzzle Him and whimper and whine. I don’t want Him to say “goodbye”, I don’t want Him to go away and leave me. He is my world.
“I don’t feel so good,” He whispers, and His voice comes out a rasp. He clasps His chest and His face is very pale. I can hear His heart racing, as fast as if we had just been chasing after each other and had fallen together in a laughing pile. But He has not been running. He has barely even been walking. His fingers claw at my fur and He tumbles back onto the floor. Concerned, I whimper and lick His face, begging Him to be alright. His skin is clammy against my nose, too wet and warm.
I can do nothing.
The Mother shrieks when She comes home to find the Boy lying on the floor and me crouching beside Him, trying to keep Him warm and lick Him awake. “Billy,” She sobs, using His Family name, “what have you done?”
He stirs then, and mumbles “I only wanted to say goodbye.” The Mother pushes me aside, scooping Him up in Her arms. She never could do that before, but my Boy is now little more then bones.
I follow them into His sleeping den. She makes no move to push me away. “I’m sorry,” She gabbles, repeating the same words again and again and She’s so sad it makes me want to howl. She places Him in his bed and pulls the blankets around Him, pressing Her fingers against His wrist and His forehead.
She hurries from the room and I prick my ears, unwilling to follow Her and leave the Boy’s side. I can hear what She’s saying though, “come home” and “yes, I think it’s time.”
The Father comes home shortly after, the Metal-Machine screeching to a halt. He hurries inside to where the Mother and I stand beside the bed. I can hear the Boy’s breathing, it is rapid and harsh. His fingers claw at the sheet. Loki is sitting on the windowsill but I’m the only one who notices her. The Family are too distracted. The Parents stand at both sides of the bed, each of them holding one of the Boy’s paws in one hand, and clasping each other with their other.
“Shouldn’t we put Duke out?” The Father asks.
The Mother shakes Her head, tears run down Her cheeks. “No,” She says, “he’s family, he has every right to be here.”
A great shadow looms above His bed, the Parents don’t seem to see it, but I know what it is.
It is the Death. I growl at it, it has no right to claim my Boy, but it does not go away and the Father snaps at me.
“Duke, stop that now or it’ll be outside for you.” His voice quivers on the words.
I stop, the shadow is not afraid of me.
We stand and we watch and I see the blanket rise and fall above my Boy’s chest and hear every breath as it rasps from His throat.
And then it stops.
The shadow consumes Him and a cold shiver passes down my spine. I throw back my head and let my misery pour forth in a howl.
My Boy, my life is gone. And I could not protect Him.
The Family take Him away the next day. I do not see we He has gone, do not see if they bury Him as I would a bone. They will not let me go with Him. I curl up in my kennel, too miserable, too useless for anything more.
Something warm rubs up against me. It is Loki. She butts her head against my chin and curls up beside me.
“You did everything you could,” she says. “The family still love you – and you’ve always got me.” Then, with a rumbling purr, she falls asleep.
I sigh and lick her furry back. She’s right, of course, but nothing will ever replace my Boy.