“The Dog Days,” Gareth Hanrahan

That last summer, the dog started finding things in the garden.

He’d hear the beast scratching at the door. When he opened it, she’d be waiting there. Sometimes, the dog would be crouched over her prize, and would spring away when he tried to take it. Other times, she would trot proudly past him and drop whatever she found on his bed.

A dead pigeon. A partially burnt shoe. A tattered foil packet. The wrapping from a packet of sausages. Assorted unidentifiable bones. A beer bottle, all covered in a thick veneer of dirt and soot.  He got used to finding pieces of chewed plastic scattered underfoot or buried in the couch cushions.

The most wonderful prize, from the dog’s point of view, was a luridly multi-coloured rubber ball. She carried the ball everywhere, rolling it around and pushing the ball into his hands for him to throw. He wondered where she’d found it; the garden was surrounded by high fences, and there was no obvious way for her to escape. That said, it was overgrown and unkempt, so there were plenty of places for the dog to find things. She’d vanish into the garden for hours at a time and it astounded him that she could vanish so completely within such a small place, but she always came back to him.

That summer rolled on, hot and slow. The news was all about international tensions, about oil wars and trade wars and sabre rattling. They posted out emergency kits to every household, with iodine tablets and leaflets about what to do in case of enemy attack. The dog got to the post before he did; he rescued the packet of iodine, but the leaflets were a lost cause.

Early one morning in July, the dog woke him and demanded to be let out. He stumbled to the door and let the animal run into the garden. A few minutes later, as the coffee finished brewing, there came the familiar scratching at the door.

She dropped something at his feet, whined, and ran back out. He heard her choke, then she threw up copiously. She’d brought him a chunk of twisted metal. He dumped it in the trash and went out to the dog. She was lying there, quite miserable, her stomach heaving.

The vet guessed she’d eaten something poisonous, but that there was no permanent damage. He brought her home and locked her in the kitchen.

He spent the next four hours exploring the garden. He checked the fences for any place that she could squeeze through. He crawled through the hedge, wondering if she’d managed to tunnel out, or if she could climb up onto the shed and jump over the fence. He examined every hole she’d dug, in case she’d found something buried by a previous tenant. Nothing.

Inside, he could hear the dog going crazy. She hated being inside when there were interesting things going outside, and seeing him poking at the hedgerows drove her into a frenzy. When he came back in, he found she’d shredded her ball in frustration. She exploded out of the door when he opened it and vanished into the hedge, barking furiously.

For a week after that, she clung to him, refusing to go outside. She spent most of the time perched atop the couch, watching him with the total fascinated concentration that only a dog can muster. Finally, as if in response to some signal beyond the range of human perception, she lept up and pawed at the back door. He let her out, and she ran off.

Later, he heard her growling. She had the sleeve of a ratty t-shirt in her mouth; the shirt was caught on a thorn bush, and she was trying to pull it free. For a moment, he thought it was one of his shirts – he had a similar one in his closet – but this was older, tattered, and singed. He left the dog wrestling with the shirt and went back to work. She came trotting in and collapsed in a heap, exhausted but triumphant, with scraps of fabric dangling from her jaws.

That evening, the news was about some new crisis, something about a submarine.

He went into town to get his wristwatch repaired. The streets were subdued. Knots of people gathered around electrical goods shops to watch the news on tv. Suddenly, everyone was an expert on fallout patterns and blast radii. He tried to ignore it all. Life had to go on.

Passing a pet store, he spotted a ball just like the one she’d torn up. He bought it and a bag of rawhide chews for her.

When he came home, she was waiting with another treasure for him: a severed human hand.

It was burnt, decomposed and slightly chewed, but clearly human. She left the hand at his feet and ran off with the multicoloured ball. He bent down and picked up the hand, wrapping it in a plastic bag. It was covered in a layer of soot, not dirt. She hadn’t dug it up.

A plane crawled across the sky. He idly wondered if it was a bomber.

In the distance, he heard her barking. He found her burying a wristwatch in the undergrowth. He pushed the dog aside and pulled it out of the dirt. It was burnt and broken, but otherwise identical to the one he wore on his wrist.

He glanced down at his t-shirt, and realisation settled over him like a shroud. He wondered if there was something he could do, someone he could call, but there was nothing to be done. The dog had already warned him, as best she could.

He picked up the ball and threw it for his dog. She chased it with boundless enthusiasm, focussed on that bouncing ball and nothing else, finding  joy in the present moment of that waning summer’s day, and so did he.

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