Who hasn't almost turned their back on their animals in lieu of a human? Though fictitious, this shortstory called Sacrifice I wrote to memoralize a less dramatic occurrence that occurred in the days of my single-woman youth, and to forever remind me that I will never repeat the mistake of choosing any human over one of my Animals ever again.
She had pushed him away but only once, but the dog had never forgiven her. He had never forgotten that look of abandonment in her eyes, if only temporary, that frozen moment of distilled touch and immeasurable distance. Her voice had been sharp as steel; had pierced him as much as any wound ever could. "Go on Toby. GET AWAY. Down. Go." Go. Go. And so he did, the choice she had made between him and some mystery guest of unknown order, a human whose scent was distinctly male and most distasteful to his sensitive nose, an intruder into the only home and life he had ever known. The man's voice followed her own in a comic afterthought. "Wait Sarah. Maybe your hound would like to join us? We'll have a threesome . . ." And his laugh rolled off into the darkness like the guttural growl of an unseen adversary with flashing fangs waiting to pounce his unsuspecting quarry. When morning came, Sarah found her dog three blocks away huddled inside an empty box near Lafayette Park, nearly frozen.
Somehow, despite his size (almost 90 pounds), she managed to lift him into her car and carried him home. Immediately she wrapped him in blankets on her living room floor and wiped him down with hot cloths. She spoon fed hot soup down his jaws which she pried open, though tenderly. Tears streamed down her face as she thought the worst. "Please God, don't let my dog die because of my foolishness. It will never happen again that way. I promise. Just one more chance. Let Toby be okay." All day she tended to him, not leaving his side. It was the worst Saturday she could ever remember. She didn't eat herself. Just stayed by him, making sure he was warm, forcing hot food into his system. Reluctant to call a vet because to do so would be to face her own neglect of him in that instant, and that's all it took: one instant to lose him.
Into the night, Toby slept soundly. At intervals, he licked indifferently at the fowl substance she forced down his throat, relishing only its warmth. Sunday was much the same. She did not leave his side, often times she pressed her face close to his and he could taste the salt of her tears seeping into his mouth. In the past, he used to wipe her face with his tongue and soothe that curious manifest of happiness and grief, literally licking the tears away, but now he didn't have the strength to so much as lift his head, if even she wanted him to. Come Monday morning, she left his side but for only a minute to call her office.
"Mr. Crumpett, I realize I have exhausted my sick leave -"
"Sarah, we can't allow for this," her office manager interrupted. "You're a good worker but we need you here. I have to tell you that I must report this to Mr. Sands, who is over me. He won't like it, I can tell you right now. You'll be put on probation, I'm afraid."
"I understand. Do what you must. I can't come in today. It's personal, Mr. Crumpett. You wouldn't understand. I'll be there in the morning, I promise." No, you wouldn't understand, Mr. Crumpett, she thought, hanging up the phone; you wouldn't understand because I don't understand. I thought this guy was It. He was not. We didn't even do anything. I made him leave. But not before I turned my back on my own dog, on a freezing winter night in December. I must be insane.
She was talking to him, now. Sweet mutterings of cooings and inclinations of soft whisperings and vibrations of deep and spilling kindness. "Oh Toby. It will never happen again. I promise. Come back to me, my puppy. No one will ever come in between us again. That guy meant nothing to me." She paused to remember the horror of the events that had transpired. "He was just out to use me. He didn't care about me. Nor you, obviously. You tried to tell me. That's why you snarled at him. I trust your instincts." She planted a kiss on his ear. "A little wine, a little music, and then he tried to ensnare me. I almost fell for it, too. Almost. I'll never even see him again. Must I pay this price?" And then she wept so uncontrollably, that despite his weakness, he painfully lifted his muzzle to her closed eyes but it wasn't in him anymore to soothe her. He laid his head back down to sleep it away, to forget his broken trust in this human, to remember what it feels like to be lost.
Tuesday morning. Sarah made sure there was food and water in the kitchen. Toby was sitting up now, but he did not acknowledge her. His tail did not wag, his eyes did not follow her. They were vacant, like no one was home. She patted him on the head. "I'm going to work now, Toby. I must leave or I'll be late. I'll be home soon, okay?" Kiss, kiss. "You be good. It's going to be okay. I promise." And then she was gone and there was the quiet of the day, the ticking of a wall clock, a chew bone that looked enticing but not enough to tackle it. He felt better and ate what hard food she had left in a bowl and lapped at the generous bucket of water. He went out the special laundry room door into the backyard to do his business, because he was a good dog. He came back inside and found one of her good shoes, and though he knew better because he was surrounded by his own toys which he knew to be his toys, he proceeded to gnaw it into many pieces, delighting in the badness of the act itself. Bad dog. Good dog. What did it matter when your nobody's dog?
She came home, finding him lying in a pool of mangled Italian leather and she did not blink at the consequence of it all; actually, she was surprised to see her sofa still intact and her collection of teddy bears in the guest bedroom all in one piece. He had done very well. She offered him a cookie. She placed it between his paws when he did not take it at first, like a peace offering. "Toby, these are your favorite. You used to like them." He raised his muzzle to the ceiling. For some reason, these cookies did not appeal to him anymore. He removed himself from their wretched scent and plowed himself on top of the sofa, the sofa he left intact.
She ate a quiet dinner alone, watched T.V., and went to bed early. For months it went on this way. She came straight home to be with him, ate, watched a little T.V., spilled her dreams to him of a future yet to be, and went to bed. There was a point when Toby was himself once more, but something was missing. He wasn't his old self anymore, that trusting dog who would lay his life down for his human, all the unconditional love she could ever want. Yes, his loyalty was still a small ember. No one could ever try to hurt her without a fight on their hands. He could sense ill-manner and mal-intent a mile away. But it was the intensity that wasn't there. Like maybe he'd take five leaps to reach her instead of four. Something like that. A broken spirit takes a while to heal. If ever.
Months passed. Summer was here. New Orleans was now in the throws of a heatwave after a record-cold winter unlike she had ever known. The snow, a rarity in itself in this part of the South, had not left the Crescent City without leaving something behind for all to remember: there had been a multitude of road accidents. Motorists were not accustomed to driving in such weather. Heat sources had gone out. Some people, not just the homeless, had frozen to death. And there was a dog that belonged to a particular girl who lived uptown on Esplanade who might have been rightfully owned, but he felt homeless inside. And now it was 102 degrees and the humidity was 100%, and there was no end in sight for any cool relief.
Sarah was walking home from the corner grocery store when she bumped into a young man, or he bumped into her, she didn't know which. "Excuse me," she said politely, and proceeded to pass him. No eye contact was necessary. She looked down the whole time. Safer that way.
"My pleasure." He said.
"Excuse me?" She asked, irritated at his comment. Not believing what she heard him to say.
"I'm sorry. But the pleasure is mine. I was just praying for an Angel, and then I bump into you."
"Oh please, I've heard everything now." Sarah spat at him. She walked faster. He kept up with her. Somehow.
"No. I mean it. I've been reading that book Amongst Angels and I do believe in them, you know. They walk among us, like you and I, and we'd never know it. There you are."
"Believe me, sir, I am no angel. Now please just leave me alone."
"Well, you could be."
She swung around with her groceries to face him. Her celery fell out the bag. He bent to pick it up. She grabbed it from him. "What is your problem? I shall call the police. I will scream harassment and have you arrested. What are you? Some crackpot? What do you want? Money? Drugs? I have neither. So go away."
And she turned and went towards home again, but he did not give up.
"Okay. But then suppose I'm an Angel? Is this how you would treat a messenger from God?"
She stopped, but did not turn back to look at him. She spoke very gently. She realized getting angry would not win points with this maniac. "The God of my Understanding, my Higher Power, would not endow you with messages to deliver for Him through you to me."
"But can you be so sure? Angels come in many forms . . . a ragged hobo walking down the street, the last man in line for soup at the Clinic for the Homeless, your private Piano instructor. Will you take that chance? Could you?"
She turned around and gave him her eyes and she was unsettled in what she saw. He looked rather nice, actually, and if he was a crazy loon, he was at least a good-looking crazy loon. He had an abundance of soft, wavy brown hair that danced with intermittent highlights within their flowing tresses, a nice, friendly and open face, and large, immensely large blue eyes that looked upon her like floating liquid crystals behind a chiseled, porcelain face. He was soft spoken, yet firm. She had met less handsome rogues in Cosmos' bar in the French Quarter and had even gifted them a phone number. It was just all too sudden. And then there was precious Toby and she became fury en masse once more.
"Look. I would appreciate it if you would just leave me alone. I have nothing to offer you or anyone. What do you want from me?"
And what he saw was a frightened girl who had lost something along the way in life, a trust, an innate forgiving. Someone had done her a mad injustice and now he looked upon her fragility as a flower that forgot how to bloom but still left behind a fragrance in its place. Something died inside and he thoughtfully considered (and inwardly accepted) the challenge it would be to bring it back to life.
"What do I want from you?" He pretended to ponder the question holding his chin cupped in the palm of his hand, hoping to draw from her some glimpse of a smile, no matter how small, or a laugh at his silly gesture, if nothing else. But she only stared back this blank , cold stare, her eyes so vacant, like no one was home. He knocked again, though, determined to get an answer. "What I would like is for you to share a cup of Café Au Lait with me at the Du Monde. Could that be arranged?"
It was simple enough and she rolled it over in her mind at least a dozen times, letting it twist itself into a reality she was at once afraid to face. She had been a recluse now for several months, had not allowed herself company or an outing. Maybe it was time to get out. Just a little. A little step. A baby step. She thought of Toby, coming around now into his own, holding his head up higher, even fetching the ball again. But he was not about to give his all to her right away. She had to prove herself, regain that shattered trust. Could it be done? Could she have a life too? Step out. She winced. She looked into his waiting eyes.
"One cup. I will meet you there tomorrow morning." Harmless enough, she thought. She would never have to see him again after that. One cup of coffee. "What is your name?"
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle Anderson. And yours?"
"Gabrielle . . " she repeated. Almost to herself, she said, "What a strange name. A biblical name. Oh. Sarah Wiley."
"All right, Sarah. Is 7:00 too early?"
"That's fine. I'll see you then." They exchanged phone numbers, and then she turned to walk home and thought 7:30 would be better. She turned around. "Would seven -" but he was gone. How could that be? No where to be found. She looked around. Other people passed her by. A horse and carriage strolled by. That was odd. She shrugged her shoulders and thought nothing more of it. Seven-o-clock it would be.
When she got home, she took Toby for a long walk. That night, she made him fried eggs and poured it over his dog food. She played his favorite game of hide and seek. They stayed up late and watched Twilight Zone movies, and an old Rin Tin Tin. He fell asleep across her bed for the first time in five months. She woke up with a smile with Toby at the end of her bed, wagging his long-lost tail. She thought maybe she might have her old dog back. What a blessed miracle.
The telephone rang. It was Gabrielle. "Good morning Sarah. It's six-thirty. Just wanted to make sure we're still on for that cup of coffee."
She looked at the clock. Toby was in the living room stalking a rubber Taco Man. "You sure disappeared quickly yesterday," she said.
"Did I?" Gabrielle smiled. She sounded different today. Pleasantly different.
"Anyway, Gabrielle, if that's your real name," Sarah went on to say, "there's something I need to ask you. It's very important."
And he waited for the ultimate. Was he married? How does he feel about his mother? Who has he slept with in the past forty years and can he fax her a clean medical report through her Internet? He waited.
With every inch of her fiber, because it meant everything to her, all that she had lost and gained anew, possibly, not totally, as if she were asking him to denounce a chance at fortune, she asked meekly "How do you feel about dogs?"