A golden retriever sits by himself overlooking diverging roads.

Gods May Die

My human came home today.

He had been gone for so long. He left me at his parent’s den and told me to wait for him. He told me to watch over them and keep them safe. I did what he asked, faithful in my charge, waiting for the day when he would come back to me.

I knew he had returned even before I could see the car that brought him. Under the scent of the oil, gas, metal, and dirt was a familiar scent that I had not smelled in many seasons; my human. I raced to and fro, between the door and window, unable to keep still. My tail whacked the floor in staccato bursts.

It had been so long.

I was at the window when the car pulled into the driveway. I joyously barked. I raced to the door, pawed it, barked, then sped back to the window to bark again. My human. My human was here. He was so close. How much longer did I have to wait until I was reunited with him? How soon until the door opened? My human needed me. I could sense it.

My human’s mother left the car and headed towards the door. I beat her there, tail thumping as if it could hurry her pace by its rhythm. I had to see my human.

“Grab Ben’s bag for him! And be ready, Ben! I can hear her already,” she called.

I couldn’t stop barking. I knew I should have waited patiently, but it was impossible.

The door opened and I squeezed through as quickly as I could. Past the mother’s legs, down the hot driveway, to the open arms of my human. The joy of seeing him was so much that I didn’t mind the heat against my paws. Not even the smell of the neighbor’s cat or the markings at the mailbox could pull my attention away from him. I buried myself against the solid warmth of his body, crawling into his lap as much as I could. His hands ran up and down the length of my coat, digging through to the skin beneath. The fingertips were more calloused than I remembered and there was a new scent on him that I did not recognize. But all those details faded against the sheer delight of my human and his touch.

“Easy, easy, girl! Yes. I’m home. I’m home.” Hands came up to either side of my face, pushing me away from him.

I took a few steps back. We were able to make eye contact.

He smiled.

I lunged in with a kiss.

“Ahck! Honey!”

Laughter floated around us like the birds singing. My human was home, and all was right in the world.

We stayed that night in the parent’s den. Instead of making me sleep in the garage, I was allowed to stay in the room with my human. I curled up on the floor next to his bed where his fingers could reach out and trail through my coat. I fell asleep, content.

I was awoken by a strangled, inarticulate shout. Before I could move, there was a heavy pressure and pain on my paws and tail as my human tried to stand on top of me. A yelp of pain escaped me as he stumbled over me and fell. I could hear this parents from down the hallway and light flooded the room as they entered.

“Ben?”

“What happened?” they both asked, one on top of the other.

With a low string of curses, my human rose to his feet and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he promised.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked.

“I’m sure. It was just a dream.”

“Some dream there, Son,” his father said.

My human let out a small huff of air. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Cautiously, I inched my way back to his side. His hands gripped the side of the bed so hard they looked white. I licked his knuckles in apology for tripping him.

His hand jerked away and fear rolled off him in thick waves.

I didn’t understand. Scared? My human was never scared like some silly pup. My human was strong and brave; my god.

He glanced down at me and his hand came up to my head. All was forgiven.

I licked him again and was rewarded with a smile.

My human and his parents spoke for a bit longer after that. But eventually, they left, frowning and unsatisfied. But I was here. I would protect my human just as I had protected them. For the rest of that night, I stayed awake, watching my human as he slept and keeping alert for anything that might cause him harm. Under my careful supervision, he was able to sleep peacefully until dawn.

My human took me to a new den. It was smaller than we had before. It did not even have a yard. But there was a park nearby and we went almost every day. It was good to be back with my human again.

But as the days wore on, I began to realize that things were not okay. Something was different. My human was different. He used to get up early every morning, leave, and return in the late afternoon. Now, he never left. He slept a lot and often cried out in his sleep. I began to sleep on the bed next to him. He began to drink from glass bottles. When he did go out, he returned with more. Food became scarce and I would have to eat whatever he forgot to put up or throw away.

We stopped going to the park. I would bring him my leash, drop it by his feet and butt his legs with my head. But it was like I wasn’t there. He stopped playing with me. The ball and rope were no longer fun. I shared all my toys with him in hopes that something might make him smile; even my big, meaty bone. He just stared at it and cried. I didn’t mean to make him sad.

I didn’t know what was wrong.

Then one day, my human smiled at me. “Things are going to be okay, Honey. You’ll see. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. They’ll be different soon.” He pet my head and rubbed behind my ears. I believed him. He said things were going to be okay.

I leaned into his touch and nuzzled, showing I harbored no ill will towards him for his lack of care. He was not feeling well. I remembered a time after I had eaten some meat when I was a pup. I had been sick for days, neither moving or eating. Maybe my human had eaten something, too. He was better now. He opened all the windows, cleaned the den, and even gave me a bath. We went to the park, playing with the Frisbee and walking the paths. He even took me out shopping with him and let me eat ice cream. Such a good day.

That night, my human cooked steaks. We both got one and it was delicious.

He started to look sad again as the sun slipped away from the sky.

I pressed against him, trying to give him comfort. Why would the night make him sad?

Absently, he reached out and scratched my head. “You liked living at my parent’s house, didn’t you, Honey? You did good there. Real good.”

I smiled up at him. Pleased for the praise and the petting.

He smiled at me, a small smile. “You’ll be just fine there. They won’t let anything happen to you.” He dropped to his knees and pulled me tight. It was a little hard to breathe, but it was okay. My human was hugging me like he had when he was a young pup. “I just can’t stand another night of the nightmares, Honey. I just can’t. Not after what I’ve seen…What I did. I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so, so sorry.”

I licked his face, trying to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for. It had been a good day. We were together. There was no reason to be sad.

He held me a little while longer and I let him. Even though I really just wanted to play tug. But he didn’t seem to be in the mood for play. Maybe tomorrow after he rested. He’d feel better then. Let go of me, running his fingers through my coat. He leaned in close to me and whispered, “Goodbye, girl.”

I watched as my human went to his bedroom. I heard him moving for a bit, then silence. It had been a long day and I was comfortable where I was, so I allowed myself to go to sleep, content knowing my human was safe and that we would play again tomorrow.

I don’t know what woke me up. It was still dark, the darkest part of the night. No one was at the door. No cats were prowling nearby. No other dogs were talking. The whole den was silent and still, waiting for morning.

Slowly, I stood up, making sure to stretch before moving. I was not as young as I once was. My nails made a soft clicking sound as I went into my human’s room.

He was on his bed, looking like he was sleeping. But something was wrong. He was too still.

I walked over and nuzzled his hand that hung by the side of the bed, as if waiting for me. It moved under my touch, but it was stiff, firm, and cool; with no more life than my rubber tug toy. There was the smell of urine on the bed and under that, a smell I instinctively knew, deep in my brain; the sweet sour tang of death.

But how could my human be dead? He was not animal. He was human. He was my god. And gods do not die.

I felt a whimper leave my throat as I paced around the bed, nervous and unsure. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe I was wrong. The only thing I had to go off was the occasional squirrel at the park and one cat. But they were not human. They were animal, like me.

I jumped on the bed and sniffed more. The smell did not change.

Animals died. Humans did not die.

But my human smelled of death and was still.

Had I been wrong? Did humans die like animals? I did not know.

I laid down beside him, resting my head on his cold and still chest. I would wait. The sun would rise soon and answers would come then. Until then, I would stay here, beside my human, and I would guard his rest.

 

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest

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