There are dozens of dogs in the shelter, but he’s the only one you see.
The kennel is a squat concrete outbuilding, and the sound inside is cacophanous, almost too loud to bear, between the hollow drumming of rain on the roof and the voices of the dogs, all raising the alert. You can’t actually see a single one around the plywood partitions between the chain-link kennels… except for him. He’s massive, one paw braced against the fence as he casually props himself up, head easily rising above the partitions, to get a look at you. He’s not making a sound, but the look on his face says, It took you long enough.
He’s not the dog you’re here to see, but you know immediately that he’s the one you’ll take home. When the papers are signed and it’s done, you open up the rear door of your truck to lay a blanket over the seat, and he pulls his leash out of the kennel worker’s hand and streaks through the open door, scrambles muddy-pawed right under your arm and into the back seat. Once he’s inside, the look he gives you is equal parts desperate and defiant. You don’t know where he’s come from or what he’s been through, but it’s obvious he knows a thing or two about being left behind.
You drive home with him peering over your shoulder, as if he’s always been there.
You figure a dog will help you get out of the house more, get in some exercise. You don’t entirely count on the way he changes the landscape of your existence. When you’re getting lost in your head he noses at your hand to pull you back; when you’re feeling alone, he slips in and leans against your legs, to remind you that you’re not.
You explore redwood forests together, chilly northern beaches, mountains and birch groves, canyons and landmarks. He drives you half crazy sometimes, and he keeps you sane, too. He’s there with you nearly everywhere you go, but you’ll always remember this the most: rain-slicked streets, and it’s dark enough that you can hardly even make out the shape of him beside you, except where he blocks out the reflection of moonlight on the wet road. But you can hear the clicking of his claws against the asphalt, and the cheerful sound of his panting as he keeps pace with you, and it’s the most free you’ve ever felt, like the two of you could run forever without slowing down. At night, he crawls into bed with you, tucks himself into a ball in the space behind your bent legs, a contented dot on the comma of your bodies.
You tell yourself he’s just getting older. He’s maybe eight now, nine, and it’s a decent run for a big dog. He starts slowing down, and it happens by tiny degrees but seems to come on sudden, too; first his hind feet start scraping, at first every now and again and then more and more often, against the sidewalk. You think maybe his thighs are losing their muscling, and then you think it’s all in your imagination. His walking gait changes from four beats to a strange wobbling two-by-two pace, but has he always walked that way? You’re suddenly uncertain of everything. Then he doesn’t want to go jogging with you anymore, can’t manage a slow trot for even a yard, and where he used to quietly egg you on to make your walks longer, now he lags behind even as you’re already turning home. You throw a ball for him and he stumbles and falls, like he’s not entirely in control of his own limbs; once in the span of a single game would be nothing, twice is suspicious, the third breaks your heart.
It’s not your imagination. You’ve got the Internet; you diagnose it yourself. The vet’s only a formality; there’s nothing he can do, anyway.
He doesn’t seem to entirely understand why his body doesn’t work right anymore. That’s the worst part. There’s no pain, and that’s the best you can hope for, all things considered. What you can’t help is the anxiety, which gets worse the more his body fails; he paces and frets, startles at the smallest noises, quivers with fear in response to sounds that you can’t even detect. The vet gives you Prozac, but all it does is turn the dial down a little; now you don’t just need to worry about his body giving out, you need to think about how much of this stress he can take. When he’s not panicking, he’s sleeping, spends most of the day curled up on your bed. Instead of walks, you drive him to the park and settle in together on a picnic blanket with a book. He likes to lie in the grass and people-watch, but after awhile even that exhausts him; he sprawls on his side in the grass and sleeps there, too. His tail wags easily enough (if a little crookedly) and he’s just as happy to share the bed as he always was (he kicks in his sleep, viciously, but he always has). But where he used to ghost your every move, following you around the house, now he disappears into quiet rooms and keeps to himself. He seems tired even when he’s already sleeping.
You agonize over the when; everyone tells you, “you’ll know when it’s time.” You’ve always figured that was true, but you know the lie of it now.
You don’t know. This isn’t anything like certainty. You still have to make the decision, anyway.
The morning is overcast and cool, and the park still smells like rain from the night before. Close your eyes and you could be eight hundred miles away, on the coast again, on the same streets you used to run together. He doesn’t even feel it as the mobile vet slides the needle with the sedative into his skin, just lies there and takes the treats and attention on offer, until he slowly falls asleep. You curl up around him while the vet shaves his leg, finds the vein, gives him the last shot. You’re in the grass, under a low-spread tree, on a beautiful summer day, and then he’s gone.
You drive home with an empty collar sitting on the passenger seat.
You weren’t ready to be left behind, but he’s gone anyway.