Michael was a good man. He had done nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. Or did he?
"Why are you doing this to me?" Michael screamed, terror in his voice. "Why? I never did anything to you? I never did anything to anybody. I demand you release me immediately."
A man, a large man, dressed in jeans and a red sweatshirt embellished with a Christmas tree with the letters J-O-Y above it, didn't answer. He looked directly into Michael's stricken, panicked eyes, turned on his heels and disappeared back into the cabin.
Michael tried to calm down. "Think," he said to himself. "Stay calm. Surely there's a way out of this if I just stay calm. Think!"
He noticed his heart was racing. Really fast. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply trying to compose himself. Breathe in slowly, hold, release. He heard the screech of a blue jay and the clucking of a flock of wild turkeys flying overhead in the metallic gray sky. Then he heard a car. Traveling fast. Way in the distance. I'm near a road, he thought. Civilization. Help. Just stay calm. Only way out of this.
He reached up and felt the chain around his neck. It was tight. He didn't have much room to move. The tree he was chained to only gave him about two feet leeway. He figured he'd been here two days now, or was it three, or four. He'd lost count. They were all running together. His legs were stiff. It felt like it was going to snow.
The door of the cabin opened. He startled. He watched the man walk towards him with a dish, a dog dish. He laid it down in front of him. Filled with kibble. He studied the man attentively. He had a round, merry face and eyeglasses that were held together with scotch tape. His eyes were clear and kind.
Michael stared at the red sweatshirt, alert, hardly daring to breathe. For the first time he noticed a German shepherd embossed on the sweatshirt. It was sitting in front of the Christmas tree, tail wagging, eyes lit up, focused on the star topping the tree. It seemed like such a happy dog.
"What the hell does that mean?" Michael cried out. "I demand to be freed. I am not a dog. I wouldn't even treat a dog the way you are treating me. I wouldn't treat any living creature the way you're treating me. I'm a good person."
"Yes, I know," the man replied softly, eyes strangely sympathetic. "You are a good man...this time."
'What did he mean this time? What did he mean I'll need a reserve? A reserve for what? Who the hell is this maniac?' He had seemed like such a normal guy when he first met him. Outside the homeless shelter where Michael volunteered. The man had just donated two turkeys and two hams. That's how they got to talking. He relived the whole scene in his head and for a moment forgot where he was, chained to a tree in the man's backyard. The whole scene unfolded in his minds-eye.
He saw himself exiting the shelter when he noticed a man had dropped a bag full of canned vegetables. They were rolling down the steps. He helped him gather up the cans and they got to talking.
"That's real nice of you to donate so much to the shelter. Been here before?" Michael asked cheerily. "Don't remember seeing you."
"Off and on," the man replied. "I've seen you in the newspaper. Last year you were nominated for volunteer of the year. You give a lot of your time to others. That's nice. Especially around the holidays."
Michael blushed. He didn't like attention being drawn to his volunteer activities. He was the type of guy that did as much as he could for others but wanted no attention himself. A quiet guy. He was mortified when Charlie Jensen had nominated him for Volunteer of the Year.
The man had more crates of vegetables in his van and Michael helped him carry them into the shelter.
"Thanks," the man said. "I'll be back. I have loads of fresh pies and more turkeys and hams at the house. The only trouble is my knees have been acting up and I'll have to rest a bit before I make the next trip. See you."
"Wait! I'll be happy to give a hand," Michael cried out excitedly. "The bed of my truck can hold quite a bit and I can get some of the other volunteers to help unload."
And that's how Michael ended up chained to a tree in the man's backyard. The chloroform knocked him out immediately.
He stared down at the kibble. Yuck. He picked one up and bit into it. It was edible. Maybe he should eat. He'll need energy to make his escape. It was better than nothing. At least he was being fed. There was a water dish, too. What did he mean I'll need a reserve?
His thoughts drifted to his wife Taffy and the kids, Davie and Lexi. He saw the Christmas tree in the living room. He could actually feel the warmth of the house. The smell of a pot roast cooking in the oven. The happiness. The security. The love. Surely they were looking for him.
The temperature was dropping. He was cold. He hung his head and a tear trickled down his cheek. He was as lonely as he'd ever been in his life. He stared longingly at the door of the cabin. Any human contact was better than none.
The next day he ate the kibble again. And the next. It had been snowing and the man had lengthened the chain so he could crawl into the dog house for protection against the elements. He huddled inside shivering, at times whimpering, for the warm and inviting home he remembered from before.
The whole thing seemed hopeless. His wracked his brain trying to think just what he had done to deserve such a fate and couldn't think of a single thing. Why would God let this happen to him? He'd done nothing wrong. He was a good man.
Finally the day came. The day of reckoning. At least that's what the man called it.
"You don't remember me, do you?" the man asked. "From before. No, of course you don't. It's a rare one that does."
"I never saw you in my life. If I've done anything to offend you or your family, I'm sorry. I've never meant to hurt anyone. What do you mean by reckoning?" Michael asked warily. "You seem like a reasonable man. You're a kind man. I know you are, bringing all that food to the shelter for the homeless."
"I try to help. But I mainly brought all that stuff to the shelter to hook up with you. I've been watching you for quite a while," the man said.
"But why? What have I ever done to you? Tell me. We can talk it out. That's what civilized people do," Michael pleaded.
"No, afraid we can't. It's too late for that. You really don't remember, do you?
He studied Michael sympathetically for a few moments and then continued.
"You know, everyone eventually has to answer for the wrongs they've done to others. If not in this life, then the next. No one escapes the laws of nature,"
"But.....I.... I've done NOTHING bad to ANYONE," Michael yelped. "You're wrong."
"And now it's the next, and the time has come," the man said. He sat down on a log clasping a cup of steamy coffee between his hands.
"In your previous life you were born a man and they named you Justin. In my previous life I was born a dog, a German shepherd. They named me Molly. My human family loved me and I loved them. We had a special bond as only loving humans and dogs can. Then one day I was chasing a deer in the woods and I got lost. Chloe and I were friends and we were just playing like we always did and she bounded way ahead of me. Before I knew it I didn't know where I was. It was two weeks after Thanksgiving, a Thursday."
Michael stared into the man's eyes and knew he really believed what he was saying. A coldness, an icy shiver, shuddered through his body.
The man suddenly smiled, stood up, and disappeared into the cabin. He returned holding a roll of duct tape in one hand and a bowl of kibble in the other.
"What are you going to do? You've got me mixed up with someone else. I don't know anything about any lost German shepherd. Please. This is all a big mistake. Just a terrible mistake."
The man placed the bowl of kibble in front of him and freshened the water bowl. Michael tried to lunge at him but he was once again two feet from the tree. The man had pulled him out of the dog house earlier that morning and had tightened the chain.
"The time has come. What goes around, comes around. That's how it works. If not in this life, then the next," the man said softly as he tied Michael's hands behind his back. "It's the way it has to be."
"Wait! I have a family. I love them and they love me. You want money, I can get you money. Whatever you want and I won't tell a soul what happened here."
"You say you are a good man. I suspect that you are. But I was a good dog, too. I loved my family and they loved me," the man said as he wrapped the duct tape round and round his head covering his mouth and neck, leaving only his eyes and nose exposed. "I'm sorry but this is just the way it has to be. Law of nature."
He turned away without saying another word. Michael watched as he double checked the lock on the back door and got into his truck. He watched as the truck disappeared into the horizon.
Michael screamed but the sound was muffled by the tape.
Shivering and afraid he finally drifted off to sleep. The next day and the next he waited for the man to return. He didn't.
He felt himself becoming weaker from lack of food and water. He could smell and see the kibble and water but what good did it do him if he couldn't eat it. He begin to sleep more. It was a blessing.
As he lay dying he had a vision. A man in a red sweatshirt embossed with a Christmas tree with the letters J-O-Y was walking in the woods. He had driven up to his secluded hunting cabin to make sure it was secure for the coming winter. It was snowing lightly and almost dusk. He saw a deer bounding by, a doe. He heard gunshots in the distance. Hunters. She disappeared into the thicket.
About ten minutes later he noticed a dog, a German shepherd, eyeing him from a distance. He called her and she came running to him. He checked her name tag and her name was Molly. He petted and played with her for a while trying to gain her trust. She followed him back to the cabin. Humans are good, she thought to herself. He will help me find my way home.
He chained her to a tree in his backyard and fed her for some days. Then he taped her muzzle shut and drove away. A bowl of kibble and fresh water just out of reach.
"I know now. I understand. I won't make the same mistake again," Michael murmured to himself as he took his last breath and drifted off into nothingness.