Jackson woke up to the smell of car fumes. This was the usual smell he woke up to, but sometimes it would be cigarette smoke or leftover waste the street cleaners forgot to pick up the night before. Pleasant smells were not commonplace in his home, except when catering trucks would drive by or when the cherry blossoms were blooming.
Aubrey patted Jackson on the head, sending him into a fit of excitement. When he wagged his tail, his entire body shook from left to right, like a worm on the ground after a rainstorm. He knew what a pat meant. It meant that Aubrey was going to walk him from their home near the park to the other side of town.
Jackson was about waist-level with Aubrey, making it easy for him to lick her hand when he needed water. Most of the time, he kept his head near the ground, sniffing at any pieces of food, cigarette butts, or gum. He never ate anything he found on the ground; he just wanted to smell it. There were always new smells in the city. Jackson used to only smell the same things every day. Back at his old home.
Aubrey bought Jackson these small shoes with an entire day’s earnings to prevent his feet from getting scalded. He would bite at them the first few time he wore them, but soon forgot they were even on his feet.
In their city, the sidewalks would get as hot as an oven top and before getting the shoes, Jackson would be up all night licking his feet. But after, he walked with a slight prance that made Aubrey smile.
Aubrey didn’t smile much. Even Jackson could tell. Their walks weren’t fun for her. They were a job. Along the way, she spoke with passersby who would give her shiny things and sometimes food for her and Jackson.
Jackson used to growl at every person that would talk to Aubrey. Every time he did, she would kneel in the ground in front of him and say, “Shhhh,” like she was trying to get a baby to go to sleep. Jackson would lick her nose and they’d start walking again.
Their walks always ended the same; with Aubrey meeting a man. It was always the same man. Jackson didn’t like the smell of this man, but he knew that the man was Aubrey’s friend and he had to be nice.
This man never patted Jackson on the head, like Aubrey’s other friends did.
Aubrey would always smile after seeing this man.
She was only with the man a few minutes every night. They spoke a few words, then she and Jackson made the long trip back to their home. Aubrey always smelled different after meeting the man, but Jackson didn’t mind.
Every night, Aubrey spooned Jackson. She liked feeling the softness of his fur against her face, and he liked feeling her warm breath against his back. The bed he shared with Aubrey wasn’t as soft as his old bed, and the room they slept in was a lot colder.
He rested his head against the floor and let out a dog sigh. She always waited for this sigh, like it was a signal that she could go to sleep.
Jackson would usually dream about running. Always about running. Sometimes, he would kick a little, causing Aubrey to wake up. That night was different, though. He dreamt about a man. A man he remembered.
The man smelled much different from Aubrey. Like grass and oil. He smiled even less than Aubrey.
Jackson would always wag his tail when he’d see the man. Even if the man was yelling at him. The man yelled at him a lot. He yelled and yelled. Every time he saw Jackson, he’d start yelling. But Jackson would always wag his tail.
In Jackson’s dream, he saw his old house. It even had stairs that he would enjoy running up and down, chasing his brothers and sisters, at least until the man returned home.
The man smacked Jackson’s brothers and sisters a lot. They whined a high pitch squeak that would only make the man smack them harder.
They all wagged their tails at the man. He fed them every night and gave them water. They all slept in a clump on the basement floor. The basement wasn’t as warm as the house, but together, they never felt cold.
One day, the man forgot to let Jackson outside. Jackson didn’t want to, but he couldn’t hold it in any longer. A small, warm puddle formed underneath him. He wanted to run away but didn’t want one of his siblings to get in trouble for what he’d done. When the man found him, he kicked Jackson so hard that he pissed himself again. That time, on a white carpet in the living room. That was the last time Jackson was allowed to be inside.
The man had a small red barn in the front yard where he kept his tractor and other farming equipment. He attached Jackson to a stack of cinder blocks in the corner with a thick, silver chain. Jackson hated the way the barn smelled. Like oil. Like the man.
Jackson would spend the next few months attached to the cinder blocks. The barn was dark most of the time, except for a few hours in the morning when the sun would peek through a gap in the wood. At night, Jackson could hear things running around the barn. He could tell they were small, but it still scared him not being able to see.
The man only visited to feed him, which was usually only a handful of dry dog food. Every time Jackson would see the man, he would still wag his tail. He wanted to make the man happy, so he could see his brothers and sisters again.
Sometimes, when Jackson missed his siblings badly, he would howl at the moon just to hear them back. He didn’t care that the man would punish him. He just wanted to hear them and know they were still there, even if he couldn’t see them.
A truck came one day. A big, red truck. Jackson wanted to bark, but he knew what would happen if he did. The truck left with one of his siblings in the back. A small white car came. He saw another sibling leave. This happened three more times.
He howled that night. Nothing. He howled again. Still nothing. He howled for almost a full hour, until he heard the front door of the house open. He heard the man yelling to himself all the way to the barn. Jackson wanted to hide, but it wasn’t possible.
The man burst into the barn. His face red and his fists clenched so hard his nails were digging into his palm.
The man hit Jackson.
Jackson let out a loud yelp.
“Shhh — shhhh.”
Jackson opened his eyes to see Aubrey. He felt her hand stroke his big ears. He wanted to stop whining, but he couldn’t. She kept patting his head and repeating the same “Shhh” sound over and over. The sound vibrated in his ears, bringing him back to reality. Back to his home. Back to Aubrey.
He stopped whining, then licked her nose.
John Ridlehoover is a freelance writer living in South Carolina. He writes webcomics at rantscomics.com and is currently working on his first novel.