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Short Story: The Stepping-Off Place
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Dog Island

“Why does the Director want me? Am I in trouble?”

My boss shrugged, clueless as usual, and waved me into his office. “That will do, Carl,” said a thin but strong voice. My boss bowed out and left me alone with the woman behind his desk. She was stern, gray and no bigger than a minute.

“Meghan, sit.” I did, half expecting a cookie reward. “Your file is interesting.”

“I have a file?” I asked, regretting my reply at once. Even the dogs had files.

“You’ve worked in animal shelters all over New England.”

A blur of happy-sad memories. “Well, I just…uh…love dogs.” Brilliant! “I didn’t know Happy Meadows had a Director.”

She frowned. “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Unemployed seemed likely at the moment.

“I’ve been following your career. Watching you.”

What career? My hackles rose. Who was this? FBI? CIA! PETA?!

“Good recommendations from your supervisors. You’ve written some articles that were well received. And the dogs seem to like you.”

The dog part was true and I enjoyed writing, but “well received” was a stretch.

The Director closed my file. “I have a special job for you.” Visions of nuclear-powered pooper-scoopers danced through my head. “I need a new caretaker for an unusual facility.”

Clyde’s stocky legs rocked easy with the heavy ocean swells. He steered the small boat with one hand; the other gripped an enormous mug of coffee.

“Are you sure you don’t want some sunscreen?” I asked, squinting into the tropical bright while slathering myself with white cream, my ponytail whipping so hard I thought it might snap off.

Clyde guffawed, his lobster-colored face crinkling into deep, weathered furrows. “Never use the stuff! But you go ahead — shame to bake that pretty face.”

I was ten years past pretty but still young enough to be his daughter. Was he hitting on me? A wave broke over the bow, showering us with spray. I cawed and grabbed for the rail — graceful I had never been. “There she is,” Clyde declared, steadying me with one hand and pointing with his coffee mug. “Dog Island.”

“You’re kidding.”

“That’s not the official name, but Dog Island’s what I’ve always called it. Have yourself a look.” He handed me a pair of binoculars. I tried to focus on the rise of land but could see only jobbling water. “Try the beach,” he suggested, tilting my shoulder until sand came into view through the glasses. I saw a cluster of black Labrador Retrievers playing. Their heads lifted in unison and turned toward us, their mouths working. We were too far away to hear the barks, but they sounded in my head. Hi! Hi! Hi! The dogs broke and raced down the beach, kicking up sand plumes behind. They were dancing at the end of the dock by the time we bumped alongside. Clyde leapt nimbly ashore despite his girth and was swarmed at once. “Get offa me, ya mangy mutts!” he cried, then thumped his chest, inviting them back up to slobber his face while he roared with laughter. When he was thoroughly soaked, they nosed his pockets for treats.

A stick of a man shuffled onto the foot of the dock.

Clyde turned. “Mawhnin’, Jed!”

“And a fine one it is,” Jed replied, his voice quavery and old. The Labs dashed to form a furry entourage around him. “That doesn’t look like a dog you’ve brought me today.”

It took a moment to realize he meant me and another to wonder if I’d just been insulted — I was here to replace him, after all. But I sensed he’d meant no harm and have been called worse anyway.

“Nope,” Clyde agreed. He busied himself unloading boxes while Jed and the dogs approached. I’d seen enough arthritic animals to recognize the ginger gait in a human — I guessed his old joints screamed fair Jesus when the weather turned damp, probably most days in this climate. When he finally reached us, Jed offered a thin hand that I shook with care, and the introductions were done.

“See you in a week,” he told Clyde, who nodded, stepped off the dock and untied the boat. As it motored away, Jed said, “Let’s go. I have a lot to show you and I’m not getting any younger."

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