We’d rescued Becker from an animal shelter without knowing much about his history, but the caretakers had assured us he was a mild-mannered dog. After we’d had him for several months, I’d begun to think they’d undersold him. He was far less excitable than the labs my parents had when I was a kid. And while he looked a bit like a lab, it was clear there was some German shepherd in our mutt as well.
I stared at Becker, watching him bark. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen him do it, and I could not.
Had I ever seen him bark?
I found Becker far more convincing than Fuzzball. I shook my head, afraid I was being taken in, but also not wanting to risk I was wrong. I pointed towards the house.
“Come along. Are you—” I’d been about to ask if he were housebroken but it seemed rude, so I didn’t bring it up. “Becker,” I clapped a hand against my side, pretending like I’d lost my train of thought. “Come!”
We were almost to the door when Fuzzball jumped at a breaking branch. A cat sauntered by in the flower bed right next to our home. It stopped atop one of the railroad ties we used to contain the soil and looked at us, its tail flicking back and forth. Becker growled but he wasn’t looking at the cat, he had his head twisted around to look at the field. He was oblivious to the feline.
When the cat hissed, Becker jumped and went into a barking frenzy. Becker gave chase as the cat disappeared behind the house. I attributed the break in his demeanor to whatever was spooking him in the cornfield.
“Stop! Come on.” The dog halted, but only reluctantly, whining after the cat until he looked back at the cornfield and renewed his barking. “Get inside.” I twisted the knob and pushed open the door.
I felt better once it was deadbolted behind us, even though I was sure there was nothing to worry about. As I looked out the peephole, I noticed how close Fuzzball stood beside me. He seemed to want protection, but I was painfully aware of what I’d just done, and more importantly, what my wife would think when she found out.
I ground my teeth, wishing Marjorie were here to meet this creature. Chances were good she wouldn’t have dealt with the odd situation as well as I—she would have chased Fuzzball away with whatever she had on hand—but after she had gotten past her initial shock, there were things she would have noticed that I had not.
“Come on.” I clomped up the stairs with Becker on my heels, he seemed to have accepted Fuzzball but was still growling quietly, as if in protest. “You coming?”
Fuzzball looked at me, the intelligence in his eyes unmistakable, before scampering up the stairs on all fours. I was surprised he hadn’t walked up on two feet but didn’t see anything significant in it, one way or another.
I was on my own for dinner but wasn’t hungry because my stomach was tied up in knots. When I’d heard the howl, I had worried about what a wolf might do to Fuzzball. But having him inside my home was a completely different side of the equation, one I wasn’t so sure I was happy about. Sure, Fuzzball looked harmless enough, but why had I accepted the premise of a talking animal so readily?
That sort of thing just didn’t happen. And I’d invited it through the front door.
Yes, I was going to be in serious trouble when the wife came home.
I’d always told my associates that things are never as they seem, that they must doubt everything, no matter how believable. Yet, I’d accepted Fuzzball as what he was the moment he’d opened his mouth and said hello.
I pointed to the living room. “Wait here.” Becker went over to his usual spot on the rug and faced the window, looking in the same direction as the cornfield. I wanted to tell Becker to keep an eye on things, but my dog had already accepted Fuzzball at my urging, so there was little he would do unless Fuzzball did something to warrant his attention in my absence.
Fuzzball looked around with a shrug. “Sure thing.”
I went upstairs to the second floor, stopping at a window on the stairs that looked out over our neighbor’s cornfield. What had caught Becker’s attention? Perhaps it had just been a squirrel, or, worst-case scenario, a wolf.
Becker’s reaction alone was hardly instructive, but I couldn’t ignore how he hadn’t noticed a cat until it had been close enough to scratch him.
I didn’t see anything that concerned me, but I hesitated, wondering if I should really do what I was going to do. Perhaps I was overreacting.
The wind rustled the old willow tree just outside the window, and the branches rubbed up against the house. Marjorie had been getting after me to prune the tree all summer, but I hadn’t yet found the time.
I slowly let out a breath before going up the rest of the way and into our room. I knelt beside the bed.
Despite living in the country as a boy, and having grown up shooting all sorts of rifles with my father, I’d never taken to it in quite the same way as my brother.
Even now, it had been a year since I’d last pulled out my Ruger Mini-14. I furrowed my brow when I only saw cobwebs and dust bunnies under the bed, not the case in which I stored my rifle.
I was confident I’d returned it after the last time I’d shot it. Had Marjorie moved it without telling me? She hadn’t been happy when I’d brought it home, but I’d been firm that we needed it if we were going to live in the country. She’d eventually relented.
Or so I thought.
“Or my brain is starting to go,” I muttered, giving my wife the benefit of the doubt. “Wonder if that’s why I have a talking bear cub in my living room.”
I rubbed my back as I stood, wishing I’d thought to put something between my knees and the hardwood floor. It wasn’t so long ago that kneeling wasn’t painful, but now I’d feel the consequences of my actions for several hours.
As I descended the stairs, I once again looked out the window, the final light of day a moment or two away from completely disappearing.
Probably better I didn’t find it anyway, I thought, wondering if the animal I’d let into the house was even real. Perhaps there was a logical reason why Becker hadn’t been as bothered about Fuzzball as he should have been.
Maybe the talking bear didn’t exist.
Something from the cornfield caught my eye.
Shapes were moving through the shoulder high crop. They were headed directly towards my home.