A young man copes with his dying grandfather by searching his childhood.
"He's waiting for you."
Jacob nodded at his grandmother and slid past her into his grandfather's office. The office had been converted into Granddaddy's bedroom. Along one wall sat his ancient desk, each item placed exactly, not a speck of dust to be found. The wall across was converted into a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with the accumulated reading of eighty-eight years. In the corner sat a large squat oxygen tank, next to it was a forest green leatherette Laz-Y-Boy chair, well reclined, and in it, Granddaddy lay. Granddaddy was swaddled in an old bathrobe and pajama pants. He had shrunk and now appeared cradled by the chair. Only a few wisps of hair remained on his age-spot riddled head.
Granddaddy opened his eyes: clear blue, roaming, afraid, they searched the room not recognizing it, then locked on Jacob. He reached out a skeletal hand; wrinkled, translucent skin showing the veins beneath. His eyes spoke volumes: fear, disorientation, urgency, frustration.
"Jake," he said.
"I'm here, Granddaddy."
His grandfather struggled to speak, his eyes slowly widening. "Jake?"
Jacob suddenly experienced a slippery sensation in his mind. It was as though he was looking at this scene from outside himself, almost looking at it through a window. Other windows began to appear around him, each containing some image from his life. As he focused on them they surged toward him, flowed through him, and were gone. One last window appeared to him: a large panting dog looked at him expectantly. "Bella?" he asked, surprised that he remembered the name. The window surged toward him, but instead of flowing over him as the others had done, he flowed into it, a thin line of cold passed over his body.
The unmistakable cool, rough, wetness of a dog's tongue ran up his cheek. Jacob struggled to push Bella away, and wipe the slobber off with his sleeve. Standing up, Jacob found Bella eying him, mouth open in a panting grin, his black and pink gums showing, his long speckled tongue lolling out the side of his mouth curled at the tip as if delicately tasting the air. Bella's barrel chest heaved in and out rapidly. Jacob reached out to give Bella's wide heavy head a pat, but froze mid-way. His hand had shrunk. He looked down at himself: he had shrunk.
Jacob looked past Bella to a white stuccoed hacienda sheltered by low brush covered hills. There was a floral scent in the air, something he remembered smelling before, but could never name. It reminded him of children gathering daisies. Behind the floral odor lurked a tang. He breathed in again turning toward the breeze, warm yet refreshing--he smelled salt--the sea was nearby. Jacob turned from the wind and headed toward the hacienda. Bella rose easily from his haunches and loped along beside him, his shoulder brushing gently against Jacob's upper thigh. Jacob saw his reflection in a window: looking out from the window was a well-tanned, blond haired, nine-year-old boy. There was no denying the truth of it--he knew those wide, dark blue eyes--he saw them in the mirror each morning shaving.
An orange soccer ball bounced off the brickwork of the courtyard behind with a loud blap! and then careened into his back. He turned and saw his father smiling at him from the balcony. "Why don't you take Bella for a walk into town? Find some kids to play with?" he said.
Bella nosed the soccer ball then stretched, ending the stretch with a tremendous luxuriant yawn. "Uh...okay Dad."
Jacob walked out through the old iron worked gate that sat open, kicking the orange soccer ball ahead of him. Bella bounded along with him, jumping at the ball and then abruptly pulling up short. The dust from the road browned Bella's white coat, dimming the small spattering of soft black spots. They encountered no cars on their journey. The hard packed dirt of the road showed few tire tracks and many footprints. The road was quiet. Jacob could hear the wind ruffling the leaves of the trees on the side of the road, hear the buzzing of insects, the clicking of a disturbed grasshopper, the even crunch, scrunch of his sneakers on the road.
As they neared a bend in the road other haciendas became visible. No two were alike, but it appeared as though a uniformity of decoration had been applied to them all: white stucco, red brick, painted ceramic tile. Each hacienda had a wrought iron gate and large shade trees in the front courtyard. Many wore hedges along the road.
Bella lost interest in the soccer ball game, leaving Jacob to punt the ball ahead in small controlled kicks as he shuffled down the center of the road with his hands in the pockets of his shorts. Bella wove drunkenly from one side of the road to the other, chasing phantom scents from hedge to hedge, occasionally stopping to mark a bush or shrub with his own scent. Bella writing letters to invisible friends.
Jacob kicked the ball again. It caught the gradual slope in the road and gained momentum, heading off down the road as if of its own accord. This unusual behavior of the ball attracted Bella's attention. Bella, ears pricked forward in curiosity trotted behind the ball wondering where it could possibly want to go. The ball rolled into a tire track and followed it around the corner disappearing with Bella in tow. Jacob, who had been watching the dog-and-ball pantomime in a heat-soaked cross between fascination and stupefaction, suddenly shook off his wondering gaze and deciding that he neither wanted to lose the dog, nor the ball, broke into a jog to catch up. As he rounded the bend in the road, he heard Bella barking.
Jacob saw Bella forcing his way through the bottom of a hedge in front of an old abandoned hacienda. The hacienda was chipped, the windows broken, paint faded. The neighbourhood decorator had overlooked this place. The shade trees were being overrun with vines. The yard, suddenly disturbed with the furious presence of Bella, who followed a code implanted in his brain in a forgotten age, swarmed with dozens of feral cats. They escaped in all directions: into the house, up the trees, down the road. Bella snapped his jaws in frustration, always missing by a small margin with an audible clack of his teeth.
"Bella, No!" Jacob shouted, but Bella did not heed his command. Jacob was a friend, not a master, and Jacob's commands were optional. Bella stopped his mad snapping dance in the yard, the hair of his spine standing up. His body taught and a low growl rumbled deep from his chest. He moved slowly toward the hacienda.
"Bella!" rang through the yard, ignored by the two participants engaged in their primal struggle. Bella had cornered a black cat where the wall of the hacienda met the front entrance steps. The cat had swelled to a surprising size, all its fur standing straight out from its body. Its ears were pressed flat to its head and an almost human sounding scream came from it. The cat had one paw raised, claws extended. The two eyed each other. Time slowed.
Jacob ran for the gate shouting at Bella as Bella closed on the cat. It happened in quick flashes as he entered the yard at a dead run: Bella lunged, a paw lashed, Bella leapt, a yowl, Bella's large head shook back and forth, a black form slid from Bella's mouth. Jacob got to the steps, slapped Bella aside, and knelt down before the cat. It was still breathing, its green eyes open and the tip of its tongue just escaped its mouth. Its eyes stared at him. Jacob could see the blood oozing from the punctures Bella's bite had made. He reached out, his hand hovered over the cat. He was unsure what to do. The cat was dying, he knew: already its breathing was slowing. He scratched the cat's head.
"It's going to be okay," he muttered uselessly. The cat sighed one last breath, and still staring into Jacob's eyes, died. Jacob sat back from his knees and sat in the dirt of the courtyard and cried. He had never seen anything die before.
Wiping his eyes, Jacob looked up and saw Bella sitting on his haunches before him. His head was cocked to one side with its ears flopped forward. Bella looked proud, happy. His wide, panting smile startled Jacob. Didn't Bella feel any guilt for killing the cat? Bella's brown eyes laughed at him: foolish human, they seemed to say, everything dies--it was the cat's time.
Jacob picked up the cat's body and carried it over to the hedge. He scooped out a small hole in the soil. He placed the cat in the hole. He threw dirt on top of the cat. He patted it down. Bella came up to the little grave and gave it a smell. Jacob patted him on the head. Bella licked the salt off his cheeks. Jacob took heart in the respects he gave the cat. He was comforted to know it had not died alone. He looked into Bella's eyes: there was no anger there, no hatred, no sorrow. Bella just was.
"Jacob, he's trying to tell you something."
Granny's voice brought him back into his grandfather's office. Jacob reached out and took Granddaddy's hand, gently stroking across the knuckles. He smiled into his eyes. "It's going to be okay," he said. This time it didn't feel useles--it felt right. Granddaddy's eyes were locked on his. He stopped struggling to speak, the fear and frustration melted from his eyes. He settled back into his chair and nodded.
"Jake," he sighed as he closed his eyes.