"Me and Creature" will appear in the forthcoming short story collection, Treasure of Ice and Fire from the series Veridical Dreams, Volume 2.
Creature was black as night with a thick, woolly coat and otherworldly blue eyes. It was those eyes—almost knowing, from a sentient being—that first drew in the Old Man, and he'd agreed to foster the tail-wagger for the Ithaca shelter until either a kennel opened up or a family adopted the mongrel. The shelter's no-kill policy almost certainly meant that they would have to wait until the latter, being as the streets of the college town were overrun with strays since the remnants of Hurricane Irene passed through and the area suffered from severe flooding.
It didn't take long for man and beast to form an unmistakable strong bond. Creature was always on the heels of the Old Man or snuggling next to him on the couch, licking his hand. It also helped, the Old Man thought, that the dog conversed with him in perfect English, telling the Old Man he cared and wanted to stay with him in so many words.
The dog's very first utterance came the same afternoon that the Old Man brought his charge to the house he rented on Lake Street in the heart of Ithaca, and the man declared from now on he would call the dog Creature.
(Thanks for the new moniker. That shelter staff must be out of their minds dubbing me Muffin. That's a cat's name.)
Initially, the dog-speak had unsettled the Old Man, but he quickly adjusted to his new friend's talent and welcomed the company for a change. Though, he couldn't let on. Talking to animals would be seen as strange, and he was already considered the odd duck of the community: the poet whose prose seldom sold, the former Army soldier with PTSD who now lived off a monthly government check.
The Old Man placed a bowl of kibble on the floor in front of Creature, then watched the dog crunch up the dry fare. The tiny sting of his salivary glands firing up made the Old Man wet his lips. He glanced at the bag beside him on the counter, stuffed a hand inside. Then tried it.
Creature looked up. (Hey that's mine. You don't see me eating your food.)
"That's because I don't have any food. … But, you're right. I'm sorry … they give me that food for you. I'll get some chow at the 'Y' tomorrow." He tugged on his long, gray beard, feeling sheepish.
(Ah, hell, go ahead. You've been good to me.)
(Yeah, go ahead.)
The Old Man grabbed another handful and tossed it in his mouth. He chomped down on the kibble, enjoying the meal and the companionship of his new friend.
Later that day, they took a walk through Stewart Park, watching the kids play and joggers pass by.
(You don't have many friends, do you?)
"No. Never have. Always been a bit of a loner."
"Oh, I guess because I don't see the world quite the same way as others. Don't fit their mold for 'normal.'"
(Yeah, I know that feeling. I always say why tie a free soul down and forget about him. Not natural.)
The pair gravitated toward a vacant bench by the water's edge overlooking Cayuga Lake.
(Why don't you keep me?)
"Well, the shelter administrator that comes out to check out your home, and, well, the fact I don't make enough to take care of myself would be an issue. I'm a last resort in caring for their animals. Trust me."
(Let me tell you, some of those well-to-do types don't make very good caretakers.)
"Whaddya mean?" The Old Man caught a young college couple at the adjacent bench eyeing him with cheeky smiles.
(Well, just because someone has money, doesn't mean they don't have a mean streak. Can you at least ask?)
"Sure, I can try. Tomorrow is Monday, we can stop by the shelter."
(Do you have anything else to wear beside that battered, green jacket? Christ, man, even I lick my coat to make it look nice.)
"No, but I can iron it, get rid of some of the creases." The Old Man smoothed the jacket. "C'mon, let's go home."
On the way out of the park, as they passed the college couple, Creature jacked up his hind leg within shooting distance. The pair jumped up and moved out of the way. "Hey, asshole, control your fucking mutt," the young man shouted.
The dog growled at the couple.
(Who you calling 'mutt,' shithead!)
"Easy, Creature," the Old Man said, staring anxiously at the couple while tugging on the leash, "it isn't worth it."
"What did you call us?" The guy leaned forward.
The old man worried … had they heard what Creature called them? "Let's get out here," he said, patting Creature as he led the snarling dog away.
"I appreciate your offer, I really do, but we've already found a forever home for this little guy."
Creature lifted his head in the direction of Ms. Kilgallen. (Where?)
The Old Man glanced the dog's way. He couldn't answer, that'd be a dead giveaway, and then they'd never give him custody of Creature.
"I see." The Old Man's face dropped.
"Well, I can't say without our client's permission, but you'll be happy to know he's going to a great family in Cayuga Heights."
"Oh … the rich district," the Old Man said, smoothing out a wrinkle that he'd missed on his green jacket. "You will be well taken care of there."
"The Andersons," Miss Kilgallen let slip out, then, adjusting her posture, she quickly covered, "uh, I mean, the couple said their son just couldn't get this little pooch out of his mind after they came by last week. He just fell in love!" She clasped her hands together in appreciation, beaming.
(I'll show you pooch!) Creature went to pee on the desk but the Old Man held him back. "Well, Miss Kilgallen, thank you for your time. Be seeing you."
"Yes, thank you. Please bring him in the day after tomorrow, 9:00 a.m. sharp.
(I remember that kid. All hands, grabbing my ears and pushing me around.)
The Old Man slumped down on the same bench they had been at yesterday. The park was mostly deserted now except for a caretaker weed-eating beside the pavilion. The Old Man reached in his jacket and produced a dog biscuit that he handed to Creature.
(Thanks.) He munched on the treat, wiped his face on his paw, then looked up at the man's grim features.
(Is there any way we can avoid this? Maybe tell them that you lost me.)
"I wouldn't want to take the chance, Creature. I'm known well enough around here, and Ms. Kilgallen would spot me coming or going with you. … I doubt you'd want to stay inside the house all day, right?"
(No, I wouldn't. Well, will you come visit me?)
"I will try. Ms. Kilgallen accidently dropped the family's name. Anderson. That shouldn't be too hard to find in Cayuga Heights. Though it's a trek up there without a car or bus fare."
Creature dropped his head on his paw, those big, blue puppy-dog eyes peering up at him.
The Old Man looked at his only friend and sighed. "You bet I'll come."
The Old Man felt guilty. Creature had been at his new home for three days now and he still hadn't visited. As he had told Creature, it wasn't an easy trip to make. Even harder when you know you're not welcome. Ms. Kilgallen had made it clear that it'd be "frowned upon" to show up at the Anderson house to see Creature.
He dug out his wallet … two dollars. That was it until Thursday when a check—a paltry twenty dollars—for a poem published online would be deposited into his bank account. That was a whole week away. And the government check was already spent on rent, utilities, and other necessities, like beer and cigarettes.
He needed the two dollars to eat. That meant, he'd have to walk to Cayuga Heights. A three-mile hike uphill. So, he exchanged his boots for a pair of ratty sneakers, and left his humble house on Lake Street, beginning the trek to find Creature.
He found the Anderson home a little past two in the afternoon, and he sat on the curb outside their home. A woman driving by gave the anguished look of a woman who paid enough taxes to not have to be bothered with the homeless. The Old Man stood considering his options when he heard a familiar voice.
(Hey, over here.) Through a narrow gap between fence panels, he could make out one of Creature's vibrant blue eyes. The Old Man scanned the yard best he could. No one was visible.
"How's it going, fella?"
(Shitty. They got me collared and chained to a dog house. I can still smell the last bitch that lived in here. They didn't even replace the bedding! That whore pissed on everything.)
"Why'd they chain you up when they have this fence?"
(Because I made a break for it. Well, more than once. Four times, tops. I wanted to come see you, so I dug a hole under the fence. Never got far, though—I bet the neighbors ratted me out. The Andersons said they'd make sure I couldn't do it again. This just sucks.) Creature nosed the fence, looking sad to the Old Man.
"They at least feed you good?"
(One bowl a day. It stays out in the rain if I don't finish it. You gotta get me out of here!)
The Old Man looked about. "I'll be back after dark."
(Where you going?)
"Don't worry about it. Just stay outside!"
(That shouldn't be a problem.)
The Old Man quickly got back on the sidewalk, heading toward a small park he'd seen on the way. He'd wait there until after sunset when it'd be less likely that anyone would see him absconding with Creature.
But then what? The Old Man didn't know, maybe a camping trip to Treman State Park, lay low for a few days. One thing was certain, he couldn't leave his best friend in that hell-hole.
Back at the Anderson's, barely thirty minutes since the sun had set and the autumn air was beginning to chill, the Old Man whistled through the fence, but Creature didn't reply. He waited for what seemed like an hour, deciding what to do. Finally, he scaled the fence, his green jacket catching on the top point, and he heard a rip the full length of the jacket. "Dammit," he sighed.
He looked to the fence top and saw a scrap of fabric floating in the breeze like a flag on high. He would have to retrieve it on the way out, but first, get Creature. He sidled up just outside the sliding glass door that led into the dining room, and hovered on the edge of darkness. His heart was thumping as he peered inside. A woman he assumed was Mrs. Anderson wiped off the table, and as soon as she finished, a man, presumably Mr. Anderson, brought in a bowl of potatoes and set them down.
Dinnertime. Good … the family would be gathering shortly in one location. Now the problem was how to get Creature.
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson went back into the kitchen. The Old Man gently tapped on the glass door. Nothing. He tapped again. Creature, ears perked, came trotting round the corner, tail wagging. The Old Man pointed outside and Creature ran around in a circle, barking. The Old Man made shushing noises while gesturing with his hands to be quiet, and then ducked down when he heard through the glass a muffled yet clearly perturbed voice, yelling, "What's gotten into him?"
Mr. Anderson appeared in the dining room, snapped his fingers, and pointed to Creature to lay down. He then yelled upstairs, "Jerry, come down and take care of your damn dog … Jerry! … I knew it was a mistake to get the boy something to take care of," the voice trailed off as he went into the kitchen.
Jerry, a glum, elevenish-year-old traipsed down the stairs, craned his neck looking around and glanced over his shoulder, then booted Creature in the ribs. "What's your problem, stupid dog?" the boy sneered as Creature yelped, got up, and scrambled away.
The Old Man's hands clenched as he watched his friend leave the room whimpering. Jerry said something else that the Old Man couldn't hear, and then the kid launched up the staircase two steps at a time.
Creature sauntered back into the dining room, watery eyes pleading to his friend. Outside the kitchen door, he squatted, hind legs wobbling, and did his duty. Soon as he was done, he moved closer to the sliding glass door.
Mrs. Anderson came back into the dining room and plopped a barefoot right into the fresh batch of feces. She shrieked, and quick-stepping to the side, slipped and dropped the green beans to the floor.
Mr. Anderson came to the rescue. "Jerry! Get down here now and clean up this goddamned dog shit."
Jerry came bolting down the stairs again and met his parents at the scene of the crime. Mrs. Anderson, cussing in red-faced anger, excused herself to go wash up.
"I'm going to tie up 'Mr. Shits' outside, and you're take care of this mess, Jerry." Mr. Anderson commanded. "Then you finish setting the table while your mother is getting herself cleaned up."
Jerry huffed and rolled his eyes.
"Do it, now, mister!" his father yelled.
The kid lumbered into the kitchen with the speed of a slug.
The Old Man crept over to the maple tree behind the doghouse and crouched down. The back door opened, Mr. Anderson cursing. "You piece of shit, mutt. Anymore stunts like that and you'll find yourself back at the shelter on that hard stone floor." He hooked the lead to Creature's collar. "There, enjoy your night out in the cold. And you can forget any treats."
Jerry's apple hadn't fallen very far from the father's tree.
"What the hell is that?" Mr. Anderson said. The Old Man dared a peek around the tree to see him reaching up to the fence top to grab the dangling piece of cloth which was just out of his grasp. He took a nearby stick and lifted the torn cloth up, then brought it down.
Mr. Anderson inspected the fabric for a moment, then looked around the yard for a quick second before hastily retreating into the house.
The Old Man stayed behind the tree, watching. Mrs. Anderson's worried face appeared in the kitchen window next to her husband's hostile countenance, his arm pointing to the fence. Then the curtain closed. The old man lumbered to Creature's doghouse.
(Was that from your jacket?)
"Yeah. Tore it good coming over."
(Maybe I should take a few more dumps on the floor so they will send me back to the shelter. Then you can take me to your house again. Besides, I don't want you to get caught helping a fugitive.)
The Old Man thought it over briefly. "I'll take my chances. It wouldn't be easy to trace that scrap of fabric to me." He unclipped the hook from Creature's collar. "I can't stand the thought of you being beaten anymore."
The pair headed for the gate.
(You have to open the door fast so it won't creak as bad. I've seen the kid use that trick to leave late at night when his parents are asleep.)
The Old Man undid the latch and swung the door quickly and soon they found themselves on the long trek from Cayuga Heights to his apartment on the other side of Ithaca.
"I still have some dog food left over. Not as fancy as you were eating back there." Creature nuzzled his head against the Old Man's right pant leg.
(That'll be fine.)
The Old Man and Creature had gotten back that morning from a three-day camping trip to Treman Park, and were now relaxing in the swing on the front porch, watching the afternoon shuffle pass by.
(Any new phone calls from the shelter?)
"Just two messages while we were gone wanting to know if, by chance, you'd wandered back here."
(You think it's the jacket?)
"The Anderson's have never seen me, but if they mention the jacket to Ms. Kilgallen, well, I guess I should have thought it's pretty identifiable if someone knows me … still, that's a long shot."
(Yeah, I suppose. Where'd you get that old, ratty thing anyway?)
"First Gulf War. Government issue and all."
They sat in silence for a while, until the old man continued: "You know I joined when I was hitting middle-age. All the others were just kids, eager to kill somebody. High on the excitement. Me? I needed a job … only reason I was there."
The Old Man stood and leaned against the porch railing, flimsy from age and rot. "Got some lead in my left leg. That's why I limp. Came back and pumped gas, stocked shelves. Gave up and did a first-rate homeless guy act until finally some of my poems and stories start to sell. Not much, you know. But with a small disability check, I'm able to keep a roof over my head and the lights on. … can't figure why it doesn't sell more though. Editors remind me that poetry never sells." The Old Man stiffened up a bit as he said, "Tell me, what do you think of this. I wrote it the first day you were with the Andersons. I call it 'Alone.'"
He cleared his throat, while Creature placed his head on his right paw and listened:
And other graceless vexations
Myself, trying to sleep
The Old Man turned his head to the side, stifled a tear. "I haven't asked for much in life but when I have, like keeping a dog, only friend I've known, they say 'no.'"
Creature lifted up his head and cocked it to the side. (I missed you, too.)
The Old Man leaned over and patted the dog. "Sometimes I feel that I've bungled everything in my life."
A police car pulled up and parked in front of the house. Creature's ears perked up. (We have company.)
Creature slinked away through the open door, ears flat to his head, tail drooped.
Two uniformed officers identified themselves and the Old Man conversed with them from the porch. He glanced to the squad car and saw Mrs. Kilgallen and Mr. Anderson sitting inside.
Creature could hear his friend's voice growing louder, and quiet. Then he heard the click of handcuffs.
(What are you doing here?)
"Had to see you again. Tell you I was sorry."
(Sorry for what?)
"I was never a good liar, and when those cops asked me about my jacket and said a witness saw us walk away from my house, I got flustered."
(Look, they had you.)
"I felt awful, friend."
The Old Man came prepared this time with a box to stand on and jump over the fence, careful not to tear his green jacket again. He unlocked the gate and left it ajar.
(You picked the right night to come.)
(I heard Mr. Anderson talking about putting on a lock tomorrow. Says he doesn't trust anyone)
The Old Man sat to the side of the doghouse to keep an eye on the brightly lit house.
(How long'd they keep you in jail?)
"Just overnight to see the judge the following morning. I have a $300 fine and the Andersons decided not to press charges at the urging of Ms. Kilgallen. Not a bad lady, really."
(She didn't have to lead them to us.)
He shrugged. "Good point, I guess."
"Not sure. I thought maybe I would ask the Anderson's if I could walk you daily for free. Just to help out. Maybe folks that don't press charges have a heart."
(Maybe. I doubt it, though. Still, there is Plan B.)
(I could poop on the rug again.)
The Old Man chuckled. "There you go. Working together we can make it happen." He stood up. "I best be going. I will be back tomor—"
A blast and the Old Man grabbed his chest. Mr. Anderson stood in the doorway holding a smoldering .45. Creature began barking. The Old Man stumbled and fell next to the dog. Voices could be heard from other houses and gawkers on the street talking. With the strength the Old Man had, he undid Creature's collar and let it drop to the ground.
Creature laid his front legs over the Old Man right thigh. He heard Mrs. Anderson scream from the door, "What's going on? You okay?"
"Yeah, it's the old guy. I shot him. Call 9-1-1."
Mrs. Anderson started dialing the cell phone in her hand.
"I should see how bad off he is," Anderson said to himself as he began walking toward the Old Man, but Creature lunged at him, snarling. Anderson raised the gun, when his wife shouted, "Don't. Just wait for the authorities."
Creature turned to his friend. (What should I do? Tell me.)
"Not going to make it. I'm losing it … fast. But listen. Porch … window is open… There's food and water in your dish. You should be safe there for a few hours."
(I'm not leaving you.)
He coughed up blood and his vision was fading. He heard a siren in the distance.
"It's easier going, knowing there's somebody to say goodbye—" his head slouched.
Creature licked the Old Man's face, then let out a mournful wail. He then darted for the open gate and on to freedom.
Copyright © 2015 David Cranmer.
The poem "Alone" is an erasure poem based on Kyle J. Knapp's "Writing Letters Alone in the Light of the Alcove" from Celebrations in the Ossuary, 2013.
David Cranmer spends his time analyzing philosophical arguments, constructing anagrams, and mentally climbing Penrose stairs. He lives for good dream recall and writing dark fiction.