Everyone stopped talking when they crossed the threshold. Each visitor peered into the long, freshly-hewn pine box that lay on the table. Some of them kneeled and mouthed words. All of them spoke softly to the tired woman with auburn hair and red-rimmed eyes standing nearby. After hours of, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Nancy,” and, “Your mother was a wonderful woman,” the room was finally empty. The visitors coalesced around food in the kitchen. No one noticed the large golden dog that lay on its belly in the shadows under the table.
A gray cat with black stripes sauntered into the parlor, licking its lips. With one graceful leap, it jumped from the floor to the back of the overstuffed recliner.
“That your human in the box?” said the cat.
The dog sighed and rolled over to face the wall.
“She smells,” said the cat.
A teenage boy with disheveled auburn hair came in and stood in the middle of the room. He flapped his arms forcefully against his sides while spinning in tight circles, then dove under the table and hugged his knees, rocking back and forth. The back of his head banged repeatedly into the wall. His humming, both high pitched and guttural, was earsplitting under the low ceiling. The shaggy dog did not stir.
The tired woman came in and crouched down beside him, ignoring the canine and holding out a fuzzy brown sheep to her son. “Honey," she said. "Come out from there. You already said goodbye to Grandma. Please leave her in peace." She reached toward the boy, but as her hand stroked his cheek, he lunged away. Scrambling out from under the table, he snatched the sheep and tucked it under one arm. Still humming, and flapping his free arm, he followed his mother out of the room.
“If he comes in again, bite him, would you?” said the cat. When that failed to elicit a response, he added, “You’re just as dumb as the kid is. Literally and figuratively.”
The cat raked his claws across the back of the chair, sharpening them, but stopped abruptly when four men walked into the room. The multi-layered smell of foods and flowers trailing behind them, each man positioned himself at a corner of the box, and on the count of three, they lifted. In an instant, the dog jumped to his feet. Teeth bared. Hackles raised. He stalked out from under the table. Snapping and snarling, positioning himself between the box and the men until they slowly backed out of the room, empty-handed.
“Easy there,” said the cat. Its green eyes glittered in an amused squint.
“They’re trying to take her!” said the dog. “Help me!”
“Goody. A giant, dumb dog with a superhero complex.” The cat licked its paw and combed the back of its ear. “Please tell me you aren’t trying to keep this human. She gets more rancid every second. Surely you’ve noticed. It’s probably all you can do to not jump up there and roll on her.”
The dog sat down and glared up at the cat. A low growl rumbled in his chest.
“I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know," said the cat. “You're not that stupid.”
“My life, my joy, is in serving her. I’ve never left her side. I never will.”
“Looks like she left you first.”
A high-pitched scream came from another room. Then a crash. More shrieking.
“What was that?” The dog jumped to his feet and lowered his head in the direction of the doorway, readying for a fresh attack. The cat stretched, reaching its front paws far ahead and its hind quarters straight into the air.
“Stand down. It’s just the boy. He does that sometimes. You should see how he yowls under fluorescent lights. His mother can’t even hug him without setting him off. Honestly, I don’t know why they take him anywhere.” The cat laid long across the back of the recliner and licked its belly in long strokes, raising a back leg into the air as it worked its way down. It paused long enough to add, “You do realize, your human will never, ever, say ‘Good boy’ again. You will lay there and starve to death, waiting for her to rise up and pat your empty head.”
The dog flopped down on the ground under the table and curled his tail around himself, whining softly.
“Oopsie. It appears I’ve broken the puppy.”
The boy came flapping and humming back into the room. He shimmied under the table, this time positioning his head so he lay face-to-face with the canine, their bodies perpendicular to each other. He reached out and tentatively stroked one velvet ear. The humming grew quieter. After a minute it stopped altogether.
“Ugh. If you come home with us, we are not bringing the stinky one in the box — got it?” The cat jumped down from the chair and strode out of the room, tail in the air, not waiting for an answer.
The dog closed his eyes as the boy stroked his head, and he chuffed air out through his mouth.
The boy’s mother peeked around the doorframe, looking for her son. She spied him, eye-to-eye with the shaggy golden dog, laying quiet — and still.
The dog, noticing the woman in the doorway, raised his head and cocked an eyebrow at her. Then he belly-crawled a few inches closer and gently rested his head on the boy’s torso. The mother sagged to the floor in doorway, her hand over her mouth. Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she dared not make any noise, for fear of upsetting the scene. Looking into his big chestnut eyes, she mouthed words that were barely audible to the immense, woolly dog.
Robin Quackenbush lives between the mountains and the sea in the Piedmont of Virginia, USA. In 2003, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she attended on full-scholarship. Robin earned an Advanced Horticulturist certification in 2008 from the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association.
When not hiding from her family to write, she can be found foraging with her children in nearby woods and fields, or working beside them in their enormous vegetable garden. Robin enjoys petting bumble bees on cloudy days, researching early childhood education, and homeschooling her children. She also has a knack for catching birds by hand in the wild. You can find her on Twitter @rtquackenbush or Facebook at fb.me/rtquackenbush
Catalyst is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @queirozmm