by Myles Abroad
Pushing a boundary can yield the unexpected.
Something feels wrong. Maybe it's the way that damned dog whined when I tapped on Ned's door. A frigid gust of wind rustles rusty leaves on the porch in the eerie morning silence. As I peer through the side window, icy fingers find their way past my scarf, tickling my neck. Prince sees me and woofs, the whites of his eyes relaying his anxiety. There was a time when I would have welcomed the German Shepherd's diffidence.
The first time I stood on this porch, it was a sweltering June day. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I smoothed down my skirt and steeled myself to make the sale of the month. Dressed to kill, I was new to the sales team, new to the area and desperate to prove my worth. Forty-something and I still have the wiles to sweet talk any old codger.
When a colleague suggested I try Ned, I should have known by his snigger that I was in for a rough ride. At the very least, the unwelcoming signs "NO TRESPASSING" or "BEWARE OF DOG" should have given me pause. Emerging from the leafy shade of the overgrown tree-lined laneway, my enthusiasm did take a dip when I saw the single-storey clapboard house, it's white paint flaking like a bad sunburn. The flower beds had ceased to be that. Instead, clumps of every variety of weed flourished as though in competition with those sprawling from the gutters. I definitely should have turned the car around when I heard the deep bark.
Ignoring my inner voices and nervously eying the cobwebs for any current residents, I rang the doorbell. The tame barks turned into ferocious snarling from somewhere at the back of the house.
"Git off my property!" a gruff voice yelled from inside.
"Mr. Sanderson, I'm Jane Smith with Mid-Western Electric. I think you'll be pleased to hear what we can offer you," I said with a hammering heart, and in the sweetest voice I could muster. Was that growling getting closer?
"Missy, you better run, or Prince'll get a piece of your ass."
My head snapped to the side of the house as a large black-and-tan blur leaped a chain-link fence. I fled for my car. At arms-length from safety, my heel gave way. My ankle twisted, and I sprawled on my back, grazing my head on the bumper. But it was the bared, gleaming fangs of the hell-hound that had my full attention as he stood over me, growling a deep throaty rumble. A high-pitched shriek pierced the afternoon...
The demon vanished, and then I realised it was me doing the screaming. Sobbing, I fixed my skirts and hugged my scraped knees. A grey ponytailed gnarled old coot glared down at me. His loyal hound fixed me with a malevolent stare. Ned's road mapped face scrunched into a bitter grimace as he spat, "Can't you read, Missy? Now, git..."
Faltering, he paled, the anger fleeing his face. I sensed rather than saw anguish flood across his blue eyes. I took that moment to pull myself up. A gasp escaped my mouth when my ankle bloomed in pain, and I sagged against the hood of my Chevy.
"You okay? Maybe you should..."
"Forget it," I hissed, easing myself along the car and opening the door. The old man stooped to retrieve my bag and shoe. As I dropped into the driver seat, he handed me my belongings.
"Missy, your forehead's bleedin'. Let me git you a somethin' for it."
I shook my head. The last thing I wanted was to hang around.
Crooked fingers scratched week-old stubble as he puckered a half-smile, saying, "How about a cold drink while you show me what you're sellin'." His eyes, though. A glimmer of friendliness? I didn't buy it. He was just afraid I'd sue. I hesitated-I could play on this and make a sale. I'd bleed the sucker.
Returning his smile, I flicked a glance at his malicious cur. "Deal but keep your mutt away from me."
"Oh, he wouldn't hurt nobody." My eyes widened at his lie, but I didn't argue. "You wait there, and I'll git what you need." As his master left, the vile 'Prince' growled and then sat regarding me with suspicion.
The geriatric returned with a damp cloth, an ice pack and a cold drink of lemonade. Cleaning myself up, I hit him with the sales pitch. By the time I had quenched my thirst and relaxed with the ice on my ankle, he had signed up to his new electrical plan. The office flunkies would sure be impressed. Six months and I'd be running the place. Those small-town hicks would be kissing my feet. As I dabbed at the spots of blood on my blouse, I reckoned I'd earned it.
I left, committing to return in a week with the final paperwork, but hoping someone else would step in. No such luck. My colleagues were jaw-dropping-amazed I'd made a sale. It was only then I learned, crazy-ol'-Ned was a hermit. A Vietnam vet who had been institutionalised up to about ten years ago. He inherited his parent's home and never budged from there, getting his groceries delivered once a week. He saw no one, and most were pissed-your-pants scared of him. I was on my own.
The next week, I had a different welcome. Coaxing me from the car, once Prince was chained up, we sat around the kitchen table over a glass of lemonade, and then another. The paperwork took half-an-hour tops, but I must have stayed two hours. It was strange. I'd always been a loner. Most guys I dated dumped me, saying I had ice in my veins, and to hell with them. I had no need for anyone. To be dependent is to be weak.
That afternoon, I talked like never before, he listened as no one ever had. Maybe it was because I'd already made the sale and thought I would never see him again, or maybe because he spoke like I always imagined a father would. Whatever the reason, I walked away promising to come back.
Another gust of biting wind and Prince scratches at the door. I hush him as I root through my bag for the key. Prince bounds up on me as I let myself in, and I buffet his ears playfully, telling him to calm down. He tugs at my arm and then races through the kitchen into the hallway leading to Ned's room. Sliding to a stop, he barks over his shoulder, then runs ahead.
"Ned?" I call, my stomach knotting. The house is cold, and the ever-present coffee aroma's missing. There's no sign he's been up, not even an empty coffee cup on the cluttered table. At the end of the hallway, his door's ajar, but I'm reluctant to invade his privacy. I helped paint the rest of the house, but never stepped into his bedroom. After a tentative knock, I push the door open and see him lying under blankets, Prince lying beside him.
I whisper, "Ned," and gasp, seeing how pale he looks, breathing in shallow gasps. Clutching his arm, I call him, trying to quell a rising panic. I punch out 911 and then sit alongside him, holding his hand and trembling with grief.
I never thought I would let myself be hurt again. People always leave, stealing a piece of my heart. And now Ned had wormed his way in.
I kept my promise and visited Ned a week later. We relaxed on the porch that evening, and he introduced me to Prince. I was wary, but Ned reassured me he was all bark and no bite. I wasn't convinced, but from then on, I was treated like part of the pack. As weeks turned into months, my visits became more frequent. One day, Ned gave me a key, telling me to come and go as I wanted. I couldn't understand why he would trust me. A man who was so afraid of people, dropping his guard to someone who only knew how to hurt others. It was nearly too much responsibility to bear.
He took a real interest in my life, and it was good to unload. It felt safe to tell him I never had a dad, and my mom died when I was seven. That I bounced around the foster system, some good folk, others not. I wasn't the easiest to deal with. Ned was silent, and I was touched to see tears glistening. I'll never forget how he took my hand and stared at me with those penetrating eyes, a gaze that reached my soul. He said he was sorry I had a rough life. At that moment, I knew he cared, and it felt like a burden was lifted from my heart. I'd never had a friend like him. Now don't get me wrong, I didn't have romantic notions, and I never felt that from him.
I didn't pry into his past, but I absorbed whatever he shared and in his own time. I hoped I returned the same compassion he showed me. Over time, he told me he did a tour in Vietnam. He didn't say much about it, and that was fine. Some things are better left unsaid. At times, he spoke of a woman he loved, the conversation laced with sadness. There were days he was withdrawn, and I would sit with him in silence. One such day, he said he had a daughter. Before she was born, his life turned sour with mental illness, post-traumatic-stress-disorder they called it. His partner left him, only sending a note months later, saying she had a baby girl-no more ever followed. With a desolate smile, he admitted he couldn't blame her.
I began to understand our connection. He was like the father I never had. I, like the daughter he lost. We both carried baggage, erecting walls. Now we were trespassers into each other's hearts.
Sirens blare in the distance. I squeeze his hand, saying, "Please hang in there, Ned. I need you!"
His grip tightens, and I know he hears me. A quiet whisper, unintelligible, and I'm certain he's fighting. As the paramedics work on him, attaching tubes and probes, syringes plunging magic into his veins, Prince shivers beside me. I hug myself answering their questions in automata. My gaze drifts past them to a picture on Ned's bedside table, one I'd never seen. I'm stunned. Little bits of information click into place.
We had spent the day painting the outside of the house. It gleamed like it hadn't in years. While we worked, he asked me why I moved here. It's an obvious question since there aren't many prospects in this town, but now his query takes on a new light. I told him it was the town my mom grew up in, where I was born. She was estranged from her folk and had never returned. Now they're gone, and I don't give a damn.
He was quiet after I answered, then he asked for Mom's name. After I told him, he was unusually distant. We were cleaning up, so I put it down to being tired. I sure was. When I was leaving, he gave me a long hug and retreated downcast into the house. I didn't think any more about it and the next day he was back to normal.
Maybe he always suspected, but from that day he knew the truth. Why he never said, I don't know. Was he afraid I'd walk away? Maybe I would have...
Looking at the photograph, it's like looking at me twenty years ago, but with brown curls instead of my straight blond. Mom's picture sits by his bed.
As the paramedics wheel him from the house, I say I'm coming along.
"And you are?" one asks.
"His daughter," I reply, the truth settling as tears run down my cheeks.