by M. E. Garber
The rain stopped as I shut the door of Jeremy’s car, pulled his threadbare coat tighter around me and walked toward the gravel path. My dog materialized at the edge of the MetroPark woods, her entire body quivering with happiness. Cleveland’s misty April light made her more substantial than usual. I ignored the hitch in my chest at the sight of her, the question of leaving forgotten.
“OK, Riva, let’s go.”
I said it under my breath. No one was around, but there was no sense in speaking too loudly; Riva always heard me, no matter how quietly I spoke. She was a ghost, after all.
She turned into the woods, onto the wide gravel bridle trail. I followed, admiring her fine boxer muscles rippling with each step. Nine years old and still so fit. How proud Jeremy would be! I almost heard his voice: ‘Good job, Jen.’
Other dogs materialized out of the mists, none of them mine. Not exactly. But the ghost dogs clustered to me. I didn’t know why I could see them, but I was glad I could. They got so excited when they realized I saw them, when I praised them.
There were three, four counting Riva. I’d named them all. After Riva, little white Fluff was the longest ghost-companion, then Freckles the mutt, and Ellie the beagle. They were solid ghosts now, no longer the faded, sorry things they’d been when I’d first seen them.
Riva’s ghost had been with me over two years. Her stomach cancer had been fast; three weeks from first symptoms until that final moment at the vet’s, when her head just tilted to the side and she slipped away from me forever.
Or so I’d thought.
The next time I’d come for a walk, there she’d been. I’d thought I was dreaming, imagining things. That some other dog looked like my girl. But no one else saw the dog, not even the nasty jogger who yelled at dogs for kicks. When no one else was looking, I’d knelt down and snapped my fingers. Ghost-Riva bounded toward me, and a gust of wind blew back my hair and buffeted my shoulder as my dog barreled at me. She’d been my walking companion ever since.
Gravel crunched underfoot. As we took the turn, white flashed to my left as a deer bounded off between the sapling maples and oaks, and was lost to view. The ghost-dog pack ran in pursuit. When they came back, their tongues were lolling and even chicken-shit little Fluff had a bounce in his step.
Fluff’s normally dingy coat shone a pristine white. His gaze met mine. That was a first, too—he cringed away from overtures.
“Way to go, Fluff,” I said to the dog. He wagged at me, and I smiled down at him.
Fluff barked once, an excited yip I’d never heard before. He raced back the way we’d come, his tail wagging, and just . . . evaporated. Not a gentle fade, as at the end of the walk, but just gone. Even the echo of his bark cut off as I stared at the trilliums and ferns where he’d been.
Riva snorted at me, and my head came around. She whined and danced her front feet three times, urging me on.
I stared after the missing Fluff, then back at Riva’s black face. I shrugged.
“Well, if you say so.” I turned and continued walking. I trusted her.
Over seven years ago, puppy Riva had drawn me to Jeremy. When Jeremy died two years after we’d married, Riva had seen me through. Once I moved in with a friend, Riva died.
I stopped at the fallen log by the river’s wide spot. I sat in the early-morning quiet listening to twittering bird-calls and chattering squirrels, and felt my shoulders relax. I didn’t watch the dogs playing in the shallow waters; the lack of splashes, of rings and waves in the water, disoriented me and raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
Today, I called Riva over to me. She tried to nuzzle me. But touch is one thing a ghost-dog can’t offer. It was also what I really needed just then.
I put my arm out, held it steady around her ghostly head.
“Riva-girl, I might have to move. For a new job. It’s been over two years since I’ve worked, you know?” I sniffled and wiped my right hand over my nose. “It’d be far away, a place you’ve never been before.”
Riva only showed up here, where we’d walked so often. Once I figured that out, I asked my friend Tracie to walk here when I was gone. I made her promise, even though she thought it was crazy. Riva had known and loved Tracie, and I hoped Riva sensed her presence, even if Tracie couldn’t see the dog. But how long would Tracie’s visits last? How long before Riva’s ghost faded and she curled up miserable and alone, looking the way the other ghosts did when they first came to me?
Riva’s tongue slipped out and wiped at my face, trying to clear my tears.
A duck quacked terror at the river’s edge. It flew low overhead, dripping water on my cheeks. Chase instinct engaged, the dogs took off after the duck, barking furiously. Even Riva. Ducks had always been her weakness.
When the pack returned, my tears were dry. I stood, and we continued our walk.
I turned onto a seldom-used trail that hugged the bottom of an embankment. A bridge loomed above, casting the whole area into deep, cold shadows. I usually found the dimness and the unseen cars roaring overhead unnerving, but with my mood, the dark was a relief.
We turned a bend, and I paused mid-step.
There he stood: a huge black and white husky with the trees behind him flickering in and out of his flattened, mud-spattered ribs. A ghost. Despite that, he was the largest husky I’d ever seen. Maybe he was mixed with something else, something big. I stepped slowly and deliberately nearer, returning the smile to my face.
The other dog snarled, showing long, white teeth. I stepped back at his threat, even though he wavered in the shafts of light slipping down the embankment. His coat was matted with mud and blood, especially on his left side where his ribs flattened. Briars stuck on him everywhere. All the ghost dogs I’d met appeared as they had at death. From this husky’s appearance, he’d been young, barely two I guessed, when some passing car struck him, tossing him down here to die.
The other dogs kept their distance, but otherwise ignored him, sitting down to lick their paws, or panting. The husky came stiff-legged towards me, his mangled back legs somehow supporting him, and his phantom growl rumbling in my eardrums.
As my throat thickened, I fought back tears. How this poor thing must have suffered! I couldn’t stand the thought of his afterlife continuing that anger and pain.
“Easy, poor boy,” I said, crouching down to his level. I stretched a hand toward him, murmuring praise. He stood his ground, his twitching ears flat against his skull.
Riva crowded against my side, her shoulder between me and the husky, even as she averted her gaze from his. I heard her nervous panting.
“It’s okay, Riva. He can’t hurt me. Not now.” I smiled at her and thought of stroking her side. She stepped back and sat, her dark gaze locked on my face.
For a few more minutes, I cooed and baby-talked the husky. The whole time, his cold blue eyes were narrow with mistrust and hate.
Behind me, the pack moved restlessly. I couldn’t force this dog to trust me. It would take time.
I stood, knees cracking in the wooded silence. “‘Til next time, Attila,” I said. With a whistle, I turned and strode down the path, arms swinging. The pack ran after, then surrounded me. Ellie the beagle raced off after some scent, her voice a cracked bay of excitement.
I glanced back at the bend. Attila stood braced in the trail, staring after us. I shivered and walked on.
I finished the walk, a loop just over two miles. At the end of the trail, the other dogs faded away. The sun was stronger now, and they’d been shimmering in and out of view, but they always saw me to the end.
Riva stood in the deep shade of a fallen oak limb, staring after me as I walked across the parking lot, unlocked Jeremy’s car and got in. As the engine coughed and spluttered to life, she faded from view.
I drove home, not knowing if these visits helped or hurt more. But I would never let my girl down. Not when I was all she had. She’d held me up after Jeremy; now it was my turn for her. And Attila? Yeah, he needed my help, too.
Tracie was home when I pulled in. I told her the news, and she squealed with glee.
“I knew you’d get an interview! When is it?”
I mumbled a reply. Her fingers bruising my shoulder shocked me into meeting her gaze.
“What do you mean, you don’t know if you’ll go!” Her voice was hard.
I’d never told her about Riva’s ghost. How could I explain that? Especially after she’d taken us—me—in? And, to be honest, who’d ever even heard of ghost-dogs before? I wasn’t sure I’d believe me.
“I’m not sure Tampa’s my kind of place.” I gave a little shrug and tried to smile.
“And if you don’t go to the interview, you never will know!” Tracie folded her arms across her chest, and glared at me for a minute until her anger broke. “Honestly, Jen. You need this job. You’ve got to live again, you know? Much as I love your company, you’re . . . .” She searched for a word. “. . . in a rut. This job is just what you need.”
Her sincerity undid me. “But what if I hate it? What if everyone just stares at me? I’ve got no history there, no friends.”
“Exactly! No one there knows about Jeremy, or Riva. No one will give you those pitying looks. No memories will be attached to everything and place you see. It’ll be new, and fresh, and you can become who you should be again—your own person. Maybe you can even get a new dog.”
I just stared. It sounded so reasonable. It’d been five years since Jeremy’s death. But then, I couldn’t just abandon Riva. Or Attila.
It was easier to pretend to give in.
“Fine. I’ll go. See, I’m calling to confirm it now.” As I pulled out my cell, I added, “But while I’m gone you’ve got to walk the trail for me. Just once.”
She rolled her eyes, but nodded.
The day before I left, I took an extra long walk. I’d only be gone two days, but I fretted that the pack might get lonely and fade.
Fluff didn’t return. My pack was down to three. As I meandered the trails, sunlight slipped through the canopy and the dogs wavered in and out of sight. It was disconcerting, especially when Riva came up to me and I saw the fading trillium leaves of the forest floor through her midnight-black snout. Only her sharp eyes held strong through the wavering light.
I smiled, covering my unease.
“Good girl, Riva. Go play.”
Her ears perked forward and she stood straighter before bounding ahead, eager as always.
We came to Attila’s embankment. The huge dog barreled out toward us, growling and snarling, until he was only ten feet away. Slaver ran down his jaws as his flanks heaved. He swayed on his mangled back legs, and as he did something flashed at his neck: a day-glo green collar buried in his matted fur, with a silver tag glinting on it.
He’d been someone’s pet.
“Oh, you poor dog!”
I felt around my pockets, my shirt, feeling for some token to give this dog so he wouldn’t feel so abandoned. All I had was my hat. I took it from my head and crept closer to the dog. He sidestepped away, growling. I edged around him, went to the base of the embankment, and laid my hat on the ground. Returning to the pack, I whistled softly. As one we moved off.
When I looked back, the big husky was stiff-legging toward the hat, nose twitching. I smiled.
The interview went far better than I had anticipated. The job itself would be a dream, and I loved the area: mild winters, Tampa Bay’s turquoise waters, the lively hustle of the city itself. I just loved it. But . . . .
Riva. And now Attila, too.
They had other candidates to interview, and Aimee said they’d get back to me within two weeks. I relaxed. I had two weeks.
Walking the trails at home again, I sighed.
Riva tilted her head at me, and I laughed. “Not you, silly. Go on, see where Ellie’s gotten lost this time.” That darn beagle couldn’t track a flea, and always got lost. How does a ghost get lost?
Riva wiggled with delight and ran off. She’d come back later with Ellie in tow.
Attila no longer snarled or charged when we visited. He stood stiffly to one side, watching us. His form wavered less, and I saw his collar more clearly, as if the attention was causing him to clean up a bit. Now that I thought about it, he did appear less disheveled. Still a bit mangy, but I doubted that could be changed. He was a ghost, after all.
Riva led the way toward the embankment each day. She accepted my talking to the husky, but she never went far from me while I did. I don’t think she entirely trusted Attila. Well, neither did I. But he was hurting, and he needed me.
The other dogs waited patiently, watching our interactions. Freckles, the speckled mutt who normally staid far from any of the other ghosts, came nearer and nearer us each day. I think he was jealous.
Tampa called and offered me the job, a week earlier than I’d expected. The package was generous, and included relocation costs. There was no reason to say no. Except Riva, and Attila.
I hesitated, drawing in my courage.
“Can I have a few days to consider?”
“Of course. But we’d like to know by Thursday, so we can inform the other candidates.”
I agreed, hung up the phone and stared at the wall. My stomach, my whole body—they felt missing. I was just a brain, floating in confusion.
I went downstairs and knocked on the door of Tracie’s home office. She took in my expression and pulled me to the kitchen table.
“What’s wrong,” she said.
“They offered me the job. I have ’til Thursday to decide.” My words were flat.
Her eyes widened, a smile broke her grim face and she whooped with glee. She saw my unchanged expression and sank slowly into her chair.
“Jen? What?” Concern furrowed her face. Tears pricked, clouding my view. I squeezed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose to cover wiping the wetness away.
“I . . . I don’t know if I can. Leave, I mean.”
Tracie’s familiar face sagged. For an instant, her eyes widened, then her mouth compressed and her jaw hardened. Finally, her face relaxed into unlined compassion and Tracie’s soft gaze met mine.
“Wait here.” She left the room. A minute later she came in holding photos still warm from the printer. One by one, she handed them to me, saying nothing.
A photo of Jeremy and me posing for the camera, all dressed up for our first anniversary. It was date-stamped seven years ago.
Jeremy and Riva standing at the river’s edge, their profiles to the camera as they watched something off camera.
Riva up close, her black face showing gray. It was the last picture of her before she’d gotten sick. Her eyes stared through the camera into mine. Uncanny for a dog, but that was Riva.
“These were your life. Now they’re memories. You can take them with you, wherever you go. But life, Jen, life you only get one shot at. Live it, don’t hide in the past. Neither Jeremy nor Riva would want that from you. They both lived in the now, remember?”
Tracie squatted down in front of me, took my limp hands in her warm, firm ones.
I squinted my tears away and gave a lopsided smile with my nod. “You’re right. I know, you’re right.” I sat unmoving, feeling blank inside.
“Take these two days. Think about it, okay? If you need to talk, come to me any time. Just . . . realize that this is a great opportunity. I’m not sure how many more of them you’ll get.”
I nodded, stood up. She gave me a Kleenex, then a hug.
“I need to walk. To think this over,” I said. I pulled on Jeremy’s coat and grabbed his car keys. Tracie chewed her lip, but nodded. As I turned to leave, she thrust the pictures at me.
“Take these,” she said. “Remember what I said.”
Riva materialized at the parking lot’s edge as usual. I clutched the prints to me as I walked along, wondering how I could abandon my dog.
Somehow I came to be sitting on my log. I hadn’t noticed the walk. Ellie was already in the water, the sunlight fading her brown-spotted coat so that she appeared little more than a reflection. Riva sat still beside me.
I smiled at her attempt to protect me. No sense in making her worry unnecessarily. I buried my head in the photos, shuffled through them once more.
“Look, here’s Jeremy, Riva. Do you remember Jeremy?”
I showed her the photo. She perked her ears at his name, but ignored the print.
I laughed, half a choke, and plucked out the last one. I held the print up next to Riva’s ghost. The two images were so similar, but something jarred me. I peered from one to the other. Riva cocked her head, almost exactly as she’d done in the photo. And then I saw it.
The photo was of an older dog, gray shading her muzzle. Riva-the-ghost was black-masked. My arm fell as I examined Riva, really looked at her.
Her ghost, unlike all the other ghost-dogs, was younger and more vibrant than she’d been at death. I remembered her at the vet’s office, when I’d put her to sleep. She hadn’t eaten for days, so her muscles were wasted. And her face had been almost entirely gray.
Here, now, she was black-faced, and heavily muscled like the truck she’d been in life.
How had I missed that? All this time, she’s been the only one my pack to appear younger than at her death.
No, not quite. Memory niggled at me. Just before Fluff disappeared, he’d changed. Grown younger, better cared for.
I stood up, halting the flow of my thoughts. I whistled.
“Let’s go,” I said, shoving the prints into my pocket. The pack regarded me, confused. But they fell in behind me, the echoes of their panting in my ears.
At the turn, Riva walked a few feet down the path toward the embankment.
“Not today, Riva,” I said. I didn’t want to face Attila. My mind was a whirling mess. I couldn’t focus. I had my own problems, and didn’t feel up to his issues, too. All these things flapped in my brain; I needed to think.
But Riva didn’t come back. I turned, and there she stood, giving me ‘that look.’ I snapped.
“Riva, no! Not now. Come on.” I waved my hand, but my wimp of a dog held her ground, staring at me.
Then she barked. At me. My head jerked back in surprise. As I watched, Riva turned and walked further down her path.
I threw my hands into the air.
I followed her, my heart pounding harder with each step. Was something wrong with Attila? What could be wrong with a ghost?
The pack felt my unease. Riva led, and Ellie crowded her from behind. Freckles kept by my side. He looked from the trail to me and back, over and over. I snorted, thinking how silly-sweet he was.
At the bend Attila came into view. He perked up when he saw me, uttered a loud bark and leaped towards me. The other dogs scattered, but not Freckles. The little mutt bounded in front of me, barking furiously. Attila stopped, amazed at the tiny thing yapping at him. Then he came on.
Freckles raced forward, growling. Dread iced my veins. I shouted, “Freckles! Oh no!”
Attila leapt aside and stopped, quirking his head at Freckles.
Freckles stood taller as he turned toward me, tail wagging. The mutt took a few prancing steps, and I fell to my knees with relief.
“Oh Freck, you silly, brave dog! Good boy.”
Freckles stopped, still facing me. But now he gazed beyond me. I turned, but saw nothing. I turned back to Freckles, and I saw it: Freckles was whole, clean. Youthful.
In that instant, he raced by me, barking furiously, happily. And was gone. Just like Fluff.
He’d gotten what he needed. Then he’d moved on.
I knelt there in the dirt, the birds no longer chirping after my outbursts. Attila studied me with his big head lowered, his eyes wary, his back legs twisted once more.
Riva stood to one side observing all we did. Her gaze said I brought you to the cookie jar. Now do it.
I laughed, a choked little noise, and turned back to Attila. I knew what he needed. This would be my only chance. I reached a hand out toward him.
“Good boy, Attila. You didn’t do anything wrong. Come here. Please, Attila?”
The dog whined, but he approached, step by slow step. His matted coat was cleaner, his legs less twisted, when he reached me. I felt the love, keeping my apprehensions bottled inside and my voice steady.
I smiled, and reached a hand for his collar.
My hand passed through him, and the husky faded. Some of the grunge came back to his coat.
“No, no. Good boy. Here, let me see that tag of yours.” I twisted my head, leaned a bit closer. And there it was.
“Ace! Your name is Ace.” The ghost looming over me was very substantial now, very strong. His blue eyes met mine, pleading and scared. I reached out a hand and stroked the air over his head, imagining the feel of fluffy fur around his ears. The dog glowed—there was no other word for the strengthening of his ghostly image.
“Good dog, Ace,” I said, offering him love and affection. He gave a powerful woof, turned and executed a beautiful arcing leap. His legs were whole and strong. When he landed, he vanished. Just like that.
I stifled a joyful sob as I turned and surveyed my remaining pack.
“Ellie,” I called. The beagle snuffled near and peered up at me. I crouched down. “Good girl, El. Good girl.” I petted the air around her, sending love and utter belief in my words. “You are the best hunter, Ellie. You could track anything.”
The dog’s gaze unfocused, and her body solidified, just as the others had done. She ran off, her beagle cry trailing behind until she vanished. I gasped.
I turned to Riva. She stood in thick shadow, waiting for me. Her eyes glowed like embers in a fire. I teared up and fell to my hands and knees.
“Oh Riva. You stayed with me, all this time. You, the only one ready to move on. And you stayed!” I cried the words, howled them. I was blind. I couldn’t move.
A breeze caressed my cheek, and I felt Riva’s presence. I pressed my eyes shut, not wanting to see trees through her body. I heard her soft snort, and a chuckle broke from my mouth.
I opened my eyes. Riva stood beside me. I sat on my heels and brushed my face with a tattered coat sleeve. Jeremy’s coat. I’d been wearing it over seven years. I turned to my dog.
“You were ready the whole time, weren’t you?” I felt silly talking to her like a human, but then, well, who’d believe I was talking to a ghost dog anyway?
“You stayed because of me. Because I needed you.” Emotion threatened to choke off my voice again, but I shook my head, cleared my throat and shut my eyes.
“But it’s okay now, girl. I promise. I love you. But you don’t need me. I can see that. And I can’t hold on to Jeremy through you anymore. I have to let go. Who knows, maybe Jeremy needs you, somewhere on the other side. So, you go see Jeremy.”
Tears streamed down my face again, but I didn’t care. I opened my eyes, faced Riva, memorizing her: her beauty, her grace, the stunning chestnut-and-ebony of her coat. I met her soft, bittersweet-chocolate eyes, and I lost my breath.
“Go on, Riva. Go find Jeremy,” I whispered. Her ears perked, her head cocked. I repeated, “Go find Jeremy. Go be free, beautiful girl.”
She backed away and barked once, her whole body quivering with excitement. She bounced, curling her body into a C-shape, then sprang away from me, her head and tail high.
I laughed, and raised my hand, waving goodbye as she disappeared for the last time.
Tampa would be a great place to get another dog.