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“You ought to be headed back to your lodge.”
Elizabeth stiffened instinctively as the dark form emerged from the trees as if crafted from the shadows himself. The moonlight shone down on his round, bald dome of a head, and the firelight glinted off the ugly scar that criss-crossed down his face. The old man made for a terrifying picture.
Elizabeth was twelve, and she knew (because of how skittish children were these days) that the old man would have frightened off most girls her age. But Elizabeth was not most girls, and she knew it. She took advantage of it.
The old man took a step closer to Elizabeth and the old yellow dog that lay by her feet.
“Obad,” Elizabeth whispered, and then said it louder, stronger. “Obad. It’s me, Lizzy.”
The old man moved once more, and the firelight was reflected in his eyes. They were a dull grayish-blue and shone like marbles; and Elizabeth was once again reminded that Obadiah was blind. It amazed her into asking a question the old man had heard many times before.
“How did you know I was a child? I mean, I know you can see the shapes and outlines of things, but in the dark? How-”
Obadiah laughed. “Silly child. You know I’ve answered you this millions of times. The dogs speak to me.”
Elizabeth’s gaze shot to Old Mamma, the big yellow lab at her feet, and all five of her pudgy yellow puppies curled up by her side. “They…speak?” She asked, looked up uncertainly at Obad.
“Not Mamma or her puppies. The spirits. Your Follower.”
Elizabeth heard a twig crunch behind her at the mention of her Follower as the unseen dog made his presence known. All the children had Followers. They were the invisible spirits of the winged dogs, assigned to each child until their thirteenth birthday. The children were the only ones who could hear, smell, and feel their Followers. The adults were nonetheless unaware of them, as if they didn’t even exist. Elizabeth knew what breed her Follower was. He was a lean, handsome Greyhound, and black with white patched as she imagined him in her dreams. She had named him Boonder. Whenever she needed assurance or encouragement to face the fears of her long life ahead – she could always feel Boonder, nosing his slender head into her hand and licking it. He was her ultimate friend. She spent the hours she had off-duty in a special glen playing make-believe with him and telling him wild stories she and her friend Sarah experienced.
She told him much and longed to hear an answer from him, one she could understand. But she knew it’d be impossible. Dogs, even magical, spiritual winged ones – didn’t talk.
To her, at least.
“He…you can understand him?”
Obad laughed once more. Elizabeth loved his laugh. It was high, like tinkling bells, and rather funny to hear coming from such a ragged, old creature. “Of course. Boonder tells me many stories of you. He loves you. Very much.”
Elizabeth felt Boonder nuzzle into her side and smiled.
“But the dogs-the other Followers, of all the children…I am blind, as you know, but they are my eyes. Through them I can see.”
“All of us are pretty much blind,” Elizabeth pointed out. The sun had set thousands of years ago, at the Killing of the First Dog, and had never risen. The average human eye wasn’t made for eternal darkness. Eventually their eyes had adjusted, but the curse Anak had brought upon them lingered with them still.
“I suppose that’s true,” Obadiah said thoughtfully, his fingers playing with his long beard, “Because of all these stories, about humans killing off the dogs. When the First died and the dogs lost their wings…vanity put scales on our eyelids, didn’t it?”
Elizabeth’s hands instinctively flew to her eyelids to check for scales, even though she knew there wouldn’t be any. She could see as well as any other in the cursed darkness. Feeling silly and childish, she lowered her hands and looked to Obad. The old man sighed. “But…yes, we are all blind. And unfortunately those who couldn’t see past the dogs’ wings forgot what wonderful creatures they were, and therefore what an eye to the future they held. Without dogs, we have,” –he paused to spread his arms wide- “This. Poverty, child labor to the extreme, eternal night. Anak’s doing on the world.”
A tear slipped from Elizabeth’s eye, and she bit her lip to keep from crying. The ever-stinging scars all over her body from a whip’s lash were proof enough. The world had gone downhill.
But suddenly Obadiah was there, lifting her chin with his rough but gentle hands. As she stared into her friend’s unseeing eyes, she realized how much like a grandfather he was to her. A father, an older brother, and a grandfather. Someone she could talk to if she needed help. His hideout was a refuge – a beautiful, hidden place in the center of the forest where she could run through his massive yard and play with Old Mamma, who was the only dog for miles around. And now her puppies! Elizabeth was never sure who ther father was, but that didn’t matter. She loved Mamma’s puppies, each and every one of them. And she couldn’t wait to name them.
Obad’s old, cracked lips parted in a smile. “But not all creatures on this earth are terribly bad. There’s me, you – we’re both good people. We love the dogs. And then there are the dogs. They are selfless and loyal – and strong enough to see past silly things. We need to become more like the dogs. Like Summerbee. All of-”
“Summerbee?” Elizabeth interrupted, confused. She’d never heard the name before. “Who’s that?”
The old man shook his head like he’d made a silly mistake. “Nobody…no one. Not yet, at least. But like I was saying, all of us need to become more like the dogs. And by all of us, I mean the entire world. Then the sun will finally rise.
Elizabeth was surprised at how ancient Obad’s words seemed, like they were a prophecy from an old book, hidden away for a hundred years where no one could find it.
“Come, sit.” Obadiah invited her, motioning to the logs that surrounded the campfire. Elizabeth sat down, and with the anticipation of a nine-year-old, launched into a question she’d always wanted an answer for.
“Speaking of the sun,” She said, as Obad dropped down beside her, “Do the dogs tell you what the sun was like? The sunrises and the sunsets? Surely that must have seen some.”
“Indeed, they did,” The old man said, settling back as if preparing to tell a good story. Before him he conjured up a beautiful description using words Elizabeth had never heard of. He painted he words into the night sky like paint on a canvas. “The sun was absolutely amazing. When it was around, there was no cold or darkness. It could change the colors of the lands from black to deep purple and blue in a single sunset – and the sunrises, child – boy, I wish we could have seen them. The dogs say they were breathtaking, filling the sky with so many beautiful colors that it would take pages to describe them.”
“And the dogs,” Elizabeth said, staring at the stars, possibly the place where the sun had risen a hundred years ago, “Did they fly during the sunrises?”
“Yes. Every morning. Then they would stay out all day until day melted into night and the sun turned to stars. And then they would fly more.”
Elizabeth stared at the stars even harder and could swore see saw the ghostly shapes of dogs’ souls, dancing around the stars with their dazzling wings. She caught sight of a long, lean shape, and imagined Boonder up there with them. Maybe that’s what they were, then. Followers of children and children who had turned thirteen and lost their Followers. Boonder had always been such a friend to Elizabeth, even though she couldn’t see him, and in a few months she would lose him. She could barely fantasize life without him.
“Yes, they are there,” Obadiah said, as if reading her mind. “The dogs still dance today, even if they aren’t in the flesh. The grave fails to hold them back.”
Elizabeth stretched and swung her legs around. The log she sat on was half as wide as she was tall and left plenty of leg room. Obadiah grinned. “Are you enjoying the fallen bodies of the ancient trees?”
“Yes, they’re quite comfortable,” Elizabeth joked. “But really, how old are they?”
“Five times as old as myself. They’re redwood trees, but the ones we sit on are only baby ones.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Really? But they’re huge!”
“Yes, but the full-grown ones were many feet around. Possibly twenty. And the oldest ones are easily a three thousand years old. That’s proof that the Creator can do all things.”
“Even bring the dogs back?”
A scuffling noise broke out behind them as Old Mamma’s puppies awoke. Stretching their pudgy little limbs, they pounced on one another. One puppy, Elizabeth noticed, was especially cute and probably the bully of the litter. He tackled what looked like his little sister, and bowled her over so she rolled across the ground and landed at Elizabeth’s feet. Suddenly, all of creation seemed to hush. The birds stopped twittering. The trees seemed to stop moving in the wind. Even the river became quieter.
Elizabeth stared down at the tiny girl puppy and knew there must be something about her. Something important. She wasn’t sure what made her decide this; it was like an ancient instinct, rising up from roots of old. The instinct that this dog at her feet held impossible power. Elizabeth slowly picked her up. She didn’t squirm. She stayed stone still and stared into Elizabeth’s eyes as Elizabeth brought her eye level. One of her fingers brushed against something on the puppy’s back and she froze.
“What?” Obad demanded, sounding like a young boy being held from a secret. “What is it?”
“W-wing.” Elizabeth whispered hoarsely.
“Wing? What? Where?” Then his eyes went to the puppy and he froze too. “On the…dog?”
Elizabeth nodded, unable to speak.
“Give her here,” Obadiah commanded, holding out his hands. Elizabeth reluctantly let the puppy go, and it was strange, like giving a part of herself up also.
The old man cradled the puppy in his rough hands, searching for her wings. When he found them, he looked up at Elizabeth, and she saw something like relief and then terror flash across his blind eyes.
“You must leave,” He whispered, staring past her.
“Leave!” Obadiah commanded roughly, thrusting her puppy. “Leave, leave! You must leave! They’ll find out and it’ll be the end of you and me, the end of the Last dog! You must leave!”
“But I don’t…understand,” Elizabeth said, staring into the puppy’s eyes once more. “This is the…Last dog? And if I leave, where will I go?”
“Anywhere! Anywhere with anyone you can trust. Just leave! Take the puppy with you. She is not safe here, and neither are you.”
“But the officers! I’ll never be able to-”
“Elizabeth, you are a clever child. You have proved that through the way you keep sneaking out to visit me. Go during one of your break hours. Run. Fly. Flee!”
“Fly? Obad, I can’t-”
Obadiah gave her a shove that seemed unlike him.
“Go,” He ordered in a harsh command that ended in something of a growl. “I will be there to help. The puppy will be there, too. Want my advice? Take Sarah with you. She’s a nice girl. Now, leave.”
Elizabeth leapt up from her seat as if she was electrocuted where she sat. Clutching the puppy to her chest, she ran away from the clearing as if invisible wolves where chasing her. And perhaps there were.
Elizabeth looked back one more time. When she did, there was no hunched over old man, watching her from atop a log. Instead there was a dog. A new dog; a scruffy, old one, standing over Old Mamma like a protective husband. Staring at her, he parted his lips in a snarl that merged into a howl that shook the forest. As Elizabeth turned away and bolted into the woods, the sound of wolves’ barking began on the horizon.