I went up the stairs and down the hall to Aunt Sully's study. She wasn't in there yet, but Denise was lighting a fire in the little fireplace. I sat down in one of the big upholstered chairs and watched her, observing her technique of stacking kindling and small pieces of wood.
We had fireplaces in a couple of the rooms of our wing, but we were not allowed to have fires in them. Probably because the adults were immediately afraid that Marca would set fire to the mansion. I thought it a good and prudent rule.
Denise stood, putting the screen back in front of the firebox. "Does your aunt know you're here?"
"Yes, this is where I'm to wait for her," I said, keeping my irritation out of my voice.
"Very well, then, sir." She exited the room. I was rather surprised that she hadn't called me 'Young Sir' or 'Master Owen.' I heard her squeak in the hallway, and knew that Gabe was preceding Aunt Sully on her way to the study.
He came to me for a quick petting, and then lay down by the chair nearest the fire, leaning against it. Something about his position seemed off, but I didn't know what it was.
Aunt Sully watched him from the doorway and sighed, then came forward to greet me again.
"You're worried about him," I said.
"He's already more than twelve years old," she said, turning on some lamps. "He's an old man. He's getting near the end." She smiled wanly. "I don't want to think of it, but he's going to go soon. My sweet honey. What am I going to do without him?"
"Soon?" I asked, aghast.
"Yeah," she said, "He fell last week, and twice this week, once when he was trying to walk up the steps from the park, and once, just standing in the kitchen. And the last time we went for a walk he slept all day afterward without getting up."
"Have you had him to the vet?" I asked, knowing that she most likely had, but knowing that that was the next question that was supposed to be asked.
She nodded. "She said he was getting old, and ... " her lip trembled again. "And that I had to accept that he would soon ... " She stopped, and looked at the fire. "I know, we all know, that this time has to come. A dog's lifespan is so much shorter than ours is. It just hurts a lot when you have to come face to face with it."
"How -- how long?" I asked.
"Could be a year, or two years, or a couple weeks," she said. "No one knows."
The room seemed to disappear around me as I looked at Gabe. The big German shepherd's eyelids were drooping as he leaned against the chair. His breathing was fast, even though he'd only come from Aunt Sully's room to the study. I couldn't remember a time without him. He guarded Aunt Sully's house. He was the Only Dog. All other dogs were compared to him, and fell far short.
I had a memory of playing on Aunt Sully's front yard in the sun, while Gabe dozed under a bush in the shade. A man with a black binder and a stack of leaflets walked up the street, saw us, and said, "Is your mother home?" He began walking toward us, until Gabe stood and stalked forward, head lowered, staring into the man's eyes, rumbling low. He got between us and the visitor, who backed up slowly with wide eyes, saying, "Never mind. Bye." He didn't even knock on the door of the next house up the street. We could play to our hearts' content, safe from any malefactor, within the radius of Gabe's tie-out.
His muzzle, from his nose to the back of his lips, was almost completely white, though in pictures of us when we were little, his head was almost all black.
"Let him come to you to be petted, okay?" Aunt Sully's voice flowed into my thoughts. "He'll come if he feels well enough to."
"Okay," I said.
There was a spot north of the house in the woods where ground squirrels had burrowed. Last summer we'd taken Gabe with us to play, and encouraged him to dig them out. There was still a vast trench there from his exploit. We never found any ground squirrels, but watching him dig had us all in stitches each time we took him out there. He had a passion for digging, pelting us with dirt if we were dumb enough to stand behind him. He would get filthy, and then Aunt Sully would make us give him a bath in the yard, which he loved. All of us were wet and covered with dog hair when we were done, and Aunt Sully would hose us off, too, with Gabe trying to get still more water play.
A couple summers ago at Aunt Sully's, we were playing in the sprinklers and egging Gabe on to snap at the water. He grabbed a sprinkler head and crunched it into bits. Water blew ten feet high in a thick stream, and he thought he'd hit the jackpot. Aunt Sully was a bit annoyed; the next time she saw us she told us that Gabe was not allowed in the sprinklers any more because he had learned that crunching them was more fun than just biting the water. She'd had to replace sprinkler heads twice more after our escapade.
Standing, I said to my aunt, "I should go tell the others, so they don't bounce all over him when they come in."
She nodded. "Thank you, Owen."
Gabe was as much a part of my world as the rest of the family. He had always been there. He had always been a part of my instruction. "Don't feed Gabe that. Keep out of Gabe's way if he starts barking at someone. Brush Gabe's hair in the direction it grows. Give him a cookie, he was a good boy. Watch your fingers when you play with Gabe so that he doesn't accidentally eat them." He was so big that even as grown as we were, as tall as the adults were, we hardly had to bend at all to stroke his back with their fingertips. Aunt Sully had a special language with him through her taps with her fingers on his back. And he would embarrass her regularly by rubbing his face under her breasts, sometimes hopping a little to nudge them and make them bounce. "Do not feed him ANYTHING from the table."
Kelsa and Michel were in their studio. "Owen? What's up?" called Michel.
"Where are Marca and Oesha?"
"Upstairs with Grandmother Claire."
"We all need to talk," I said, remembering Gabe running with us in the orchard.
"I'll get them," Kelsa piped, her face pale. "Is it bad news?"
"Kinda, yeah," I answered her, feeling my throat tighten.
Michel put their paints away and cleaned up as Kelsa ran out of the room. He tossed me a glance every couple seconds to see if I would spring for more information in advance of the others' return. I didn't think I could bear to talk about it twice, so I went to our nursery room and sat down in a chair to wait, and think about what I would have to say. It wouldn't have to be much, but I had to make them understand that Gabe just wasn't up for roughhousing or pestering or even loving. Unless he invited it, and then it had to be gentle. That, and explaining why.
Michel was drying his hands with a rag when Kelsa returned with our elder sisters. "What's the emergency?" asked Marca, still put out about the cancellation of her soccer match.
"It's Gabe," I said. "He's sick."
"What??" all four shouted at me.
"He's with Aunt Sully," I said, using my hands to make calming gestures. "But we can't pounce on him and hug him like we used to. If he wants petted, he'll come to us, but otherwise, we need to let him alone."
"Is he going to be okay?" asked Oesha.
Like Aunt Sully, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I shook my head, just a little. "He's just ... getting old, she said, getting to the end of his time."
"Dammit," said Marca.
"He's dying?" demanded Kelsa.
"Maybe," I said, pinching the bridge of my nose and trying not to cry. "Just be very gentle with him, okay?"
"Are they in her study?" asked Marca.
"Yes. He was sleeping against a chair when I left. Be nice to Aunt Sully, she's trying not to be sad."
The girls left. My heart felt so heavy I couldn't make myself move. Michel stood and came over to me. "Why can't he live longer?"
"Because he's a dog. That's all. They live like, seven years to each one of ours. He's more than eighty-four years old. He's had a good life, Michel, with Aunt Sully to love him. She said he's just getting old and tired and is ready to ... " I couldn't finish the sentence.
Michel threw his arms around me and pressed his face against my chest. "No," he gulped. "No."
I hugged my brother. "It happens. Hurts like hell, but it happens. Try not to cry, but let's all save something from dinner to feed him. We've never been allowed to give him stuff from our plates, but tonight, we will."
"Maybe it will make him better," said Michel, and left me before I could say that it wouldn't.
I literally couldn't remember a time when Aunt Sully visited that we weren't stepping over Gabe, who commandingly sprawled over his chosen section of floor. Intimidating the staff when he was present, he aggravated them in his absence as they tried to remove his hair from bedclothes and rugs and furniture. He was never familiar with them, but instead treated them as though they were chickens in a farmyard, moving items to be ignored. He was regal; they were beneath him.
Looking at the clock in the room, I realized that my mother and Uncle Bodie would be home shortly. I went downstairs again to await them, and watch the pouring rain pound the driveway until they came home.
When they did, I told them about both Aunt Andersol's defection from dinner, and about Gabe, feeling increasingly miserable about being the bearer of sad news.
The whole family (except for Aunt Andersol) took their dinner in Aunt Sully's study that evening, a bit subdued, each of us feeling a kind of triumph when Gabe would accept a tidbit from us. Before we were done with our meal, though, he retreated to a dark corner of the room and curled up with his back to us all.
Long ago, Aunt Sully delivered him a severe clouting when he took a half of a grilled cheese sandwich from Kelsa's hand and gulped it down, not even chewing it. Kelsa herself got the bum's rush back to her chair and was told not to get out of her seat until she was done eating. Both of them were better-mannered after that incident, at least while they were in the same room.
And what would Christmas be without Gabe there, watching the tree anxiously for his present? He always got a chewie bone (which he would ignore for days, and then grind into dust on a whim) and some kind of squeaky toy, the wrapping of which he would tear into with fervor. Aunt Sully wrapped his gifts in plain white tissue paper, so that if he ate any of it, it wouldn't make him sick, but he knew that his present was beneath the paper, and never ate a bit of it that I could remember. One Christmas, when he tore open his gift and found a plastic football that screeched loudly when bitten, he bit it once, and then ran in circles to the left, then to the right in ecstasy before he settled down to bite it again and again, drowning out the CD of Christmas carols.
Watching the dog after I finished my sandwich that night, I found myself overwhelmed by memory after memory, including one of Gabe climbing up onto the sofa to lick my father's face, slobbering all over his shirt and tie and suit, my father laughing and trying to get away from the enthusiastic beast.
It occurred to me suddenly that I had known Gabe longer than I had known my father, and feeling tears welling and burning my eyes, excused myself and went to my room to cry.