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It wasn’t anywhere near noon, and Beth Lowe already had a sneaking suspicion her day was about to go down the drain. The odor of urine and feces was enough to make her eyes water, and the barking dogs around her created a din that was overwhelming. Trying to ignore the yips and howls, she watched Lizzie as she tried to coax the biggest dog Beth had ever seen to the front of his pen.
“C’mon! C’mere, boy! Come onnnnnnn—nobody’s going to hurt you.” Dejected, Lizzie turned away and trudged back along the cage-lined aisle, oblivious to the bedlam on either side of her.
“Never mind, honey,” Beth soothed, “we have a lot of other dogs to choose from. Let’s keeping looking.”
Glancing around, Lizzie spotted the big dog peeking around the corner of his cage. “Look! He wants us to come back!”
Beth could only watch in dismay as the little girl darted back and was greeted by a low whine, and soaked by a tongue that would have been right at home on a Texas Longhorn. Sighing, she slogged back and stood regarding the pair with apprehension.
“He seems like a nice dog, but he’s so big—and he’ll eat so much. Look at all these other dogs. They need a home too. Like this little guy.” She knelt next to a forlorn little terrier sitting against his cage door. “He looks miserable.”
Nuzzling the canine’s huge nose, Lizzie put forth her best pout. “But, I want him—he’s soooo cute, isn’t he?”
Beth had never seen an uglier dog.
He was enormous and reddish brown in color. Eyes that were almost hidden by folds of drooping skin were framed by ears that seemed large enough for a bull elephant. His hanging jowls reminded her of a plump British colonel—except British officers seldom had strings of drool hanging from their mouths. Impossibly long legs and feet like saucers completed the questionable picture. Ugh, she thought. This brute in my house?
Just as she was opening her mouth to try one last futile protest, the beast stood up and shook his head violently, sending ears a’flapping and covering everything within six feet with long tendrils of saliva.
“Hah! Look at his ears! When he does that, they look just like the little pancakes you make us in the morning! You know, when you throw them into the air? That’s your new name fella. Flapjack!” Throwing her arms around the monster’s neck, Lizzie planted a wet kiss directly on the end of the newly christened dog’s rubbery snout. Beth shook her head. Doomed, she thought, the little so-and-so just doomed me, as usual. As the assistant who had led them back to the cages walked up, Beth asked him, “Can you tell us exactly what kind of dog this is?”
Kneeling to give Flapjack a rub, the caretaker answered, “Well, we can never know exactly, unless the previous owners give us their papers. This fellow was an owner-surrender, but they left him tied up at the door. He looks like a Bloodhound, but we can’t say he’s full-blooded.”
Bloodhound. Even the breed name sent a slight shiver up her back. Glancing down at the Kodak moment unfolding before her, she knew two things with equal certainty. She didn’t want the dog, and Lizzie most certainly did. Sighing, she caved to the inevitable. “Okay. Let’s get the paperwork done.”
“Yes!” Lizzie shouted, “You hear that, boy? You’re coming home with us!”
The young attendant looked at Beth, his bemused expression indicating that he knew exactly what had just happened. Beth shrugged and dug for her wallet. So she was easy—so what?
They had been watching television one evening when Lizzie asked, “Why don’t you own a dog?”
“I don’t know,” Beth had murmured, her mind focused on deciding whether the main character was secretly married, “Guess I’ve never really thought about it.”
“We should have a dog.”
Suddenly realizing she’d been missing something, Beth looked over at Lizzie. “Why?”
The youngster’s face was carrying an expression that was a mixture of innocence and solemnity, “Well, we’re out in the country, so we’re kind of alone. What if someone tries to break in?”
Silently amused, Beth decided to see where this would go, “I hadn’t thought about that.”
The opening wasn’t wasted. “You should. I bet it would take the police a long time to get out here. And we have a fenced-in yard, and woods he could run in, and I promise to take care of him.”
“Have you considered being an attorney when you grow up?”
Lizzie contorted her face up in a way that suggested she was eating lemons. “An attorney? Yuk. Why would I want to be one of those? I’m going to be a country music star. Please? I’ve never owned a dog before.”
“You made some very good points, so I’ll tell you what. I don’t have any classes Friday. Why don’t we go to the animal shelter and have a look around? One condition, though. It’s your dog, so it’s your responsibility. You feed it, you water it, and you take it outside to potty. Agreed?”
“Yayyy! You’re the best!” Lizzie ran over and gave her a huge hug. Beth grinned and hugged her back, silently acknowledging her defeat. But, she reasoned, both of them would enjoy the additional companionship. They did have Barlow, a Persian cat Beth had owned since her college days, but he stayed to himself much of the time. A dog might be a nice addition.
Three days, fourteen suggestions and one decision later, the two ladies were driving to the pet store with the newest family member. While they browsed around, picking out food, bowls and toys, Flapjack acted the perfect gentleman on his new leash, occasionally sniffing a stuffed animal, or a package of rawhide bones. On the drive home, Lizzie insisted Flapjack ride in the front, and he took advantage of the treat by sticking his head out the passenger window. As soon as they piled out of the car, Lizzie was up the driveway, Flapjack close on her heels. “Come on, boy! You’re home!”
Home. The word shot Beth’s mind back to her arrival in the sleepy little community of Hemingway. Originally from Clifton Heights, a suburb of Philadelphia, Beth had traveled to western Pennsylvania as a child with her parents. The tiny hamlets and villages had impressed her with their country charms, and she had never forgotten the serenity that had enveloped everything there. When an opportunity to teach Entomology surfaced at Paxton University, just a few miles outside of Hemingway, Beth had leaped at the chance.
She had rented a room above one of the general stores in town for a short time, until she was familiar enough with the area to consider a house purchase. When the time came to look for a more permanent residence, one property in particular had struck her fancy. Large and roomy, it was styled after farmhouses commonplace in that area at the turn of the 20th century, and boasted a large fenced yard with a brick barbeque pit. It was situated on a back country road, and immediately to the rear of the property was a large wood in which she could gather samples for her class work. The old house was a fixer-upper, but she hadn’t minded, since it furnished an everyday escape from civilization. Beth had spent many weekends slapping paint, laying tiles and patching holes, but the result was a warm home she could call her own.
Life was slower here than in the hustling burbs, and she had grown accustomed very quickly to country living. Everyone spoke, milk was delivered to her doorstep, and the mailman waved every day on his rounds. Beth had found contentment in Small Town, USA, and since Lizzie had come to live with her, she truly felt her existence was complete.
Since securing a position at the small university, there had been no time for a man in her life. She was a pretty woman, flaxen-haired and petite, with limpid brown eyes that gazed at her world with a combination of scholar and schoolgirl. Various professors—and students—had hinted at their interest, but she had politely and firmly turned away each in their turn. Her life was her work, and since Lizzie’s arrival, her daughter’s welfare and upbringing.
Now, Beth couldn’t help but smile. This was the most life Lizzie had shown since arriving at her aunt’s house, almost nineteen months earlier. For weeks after her mother and father’s death, the nine year old had remained in an almost catatonic state. Fortunately, Beth and her sister had been remarkably close (having sis’s first child named after her still brought a tear to her eye), and under the conditions of the will, Beth had become Lizzie’s custodian. Month by month, the little girl had been responding to her aunt’s tender nurturing.
On the night before the formal adoption, Beth had explained to Lizzie exactly what was to happen—that her mother would always be her mother, but she would now be her legal mom, and would take care of her forever. Lizzie had responded in typical Lizzie-ish fashion.
“Well, then you’ll be my Momma Beth. Is that okay?”
It was indeed okay, and slowly, the youngster had begun transforming back into the bright, cheerful girl Beth remembered.
Nor had it taken long to realize Lizzie shared her love for anything outdoors. Soon after her new daughter’s arrival, Beth was preparing for an afternoon of specimen collection, when Lizzie stuck her head around the workroom door.
“Where are you going?”
“Just out in the woods for a bit. I wanted to give a class on the Rose Hooktip moth, so I was going to collect some specimens.”
“Can I come?”
“Well…sure…I didn’t know you liked the woods.”
The shadow of a frown came across Lizzie’s features. She averted her eyes, “Daddy always took me with him went he went fishing. He showed me how to bait my own hook and everything. Sometimes, we would just walk in the woods, and he would help me lift rocks and look at all the bugs underneath.”
Beth managed to swallow the lump in her throat. “Well, I could sure use an assistant. Carrying all these jars and stuff gets to be a bit much. You interested in the job?”
And from there, the pair had been a team, foraging the quiet woods for specimens, and occasionally catching sight of a deer or fox before it bolted from sight.
As a bonus to the course curriculum, Beth hosted barbeques from time to time, leading her students through the woods to view their subjects in a natural habitat, before treating them to a supper of grilled burgers and corn on the cob. On these occasions, Lizzie slipped seamlessly into the role of host, chattering happily, making sure glasses were full and everyone had eaten their fill. Everyone fawned on the new lady of the manor, and she was quickly absorbed into the close-knit community small colleges often afford.
As Beth came out of her reverie, Lizzie was pelting around the house corner into the back yard, breathlessly urging her new buddy to keep up. “Look, boy, look at this huge yard. We can play all the time out here.” The big dog sniffed around several spots, lifted his leg once to mark his territory, and then allowed Lizzie to lead him inside to the kitchen. “Here’s where I’m going to put your food and water bowls—right beside where I sit to eat, see? Come up these steps, there you go, good boy, this is my room, and this is where your doggie bed is going, nice and big and soft, and right below my bed, so you can protect me. The guy in that poster is Toby Keith, and that’s Taylor Swift. See,” she stuck two CDs under the new arrival’s nose, “these are their new albums. This is my stereo and my TV—we can watch what you like sometimes—and,” she bent forward and whispered into the dog’s ear, “you can even sleep up on my bed with me some.”
Running for the stairs, Lizzie looked back, “Come on, boy!” While his new owners busied themselves filling his bowls and arranging his bed, the huge canine began his own inspection of every inch of the house, sniffing and snuffing, woofed once at Barlow, and finally flopped down on the rug in front of the fireplace. Flapjack was home.
The next morning, Beth and Lizzie piled into their Ford Explorer and headed for the veterinarian. As they drove, Lizzie looked over with worry in her eyes. “Why do we have to take Flapjack to the doctor? He looks fine.”
“Oh, I’m sure he is, but I want Doc Barchfield to take a look at him. Who knows when he’s been treated for fleas, or had a rabies shot? We’re going to get old Flapjack up to date on everything, so we can make sure he’s all healthy and happy.”
The good doctor gave the big dog a thorough exam, and then sat back and smiled. “Well, he’s in great shape. I don’t see any signs of fleas, his heart sounds strong, and his teeth are in good order. A little tartar on them, but nothing a couple bones won’t clean. He’s hale and hearty, and strong as a horse. Weight is 105, which is about right. We’ll give him shots for rabies, parvo, and distemper, give you some stuff for flea control, and you can be on your way.”
“Thanks so much, doctor. How old would you say he is?”
Prying open Flapjack’s mouth, Doc Barchfield peered in for a few moments. “It’s hard to tell when a dog isn’t very old, but I’d hazard he’s around three or so. Plenty of years left in this fellow.”
In due time, Flapjack was absorbed seamlessly into his adoptive family, and Lizzie was true to her word. It was she who ensured his bowls were full, called him to go outside for a walk, and (with Beth’s help) gave him his bath. She said her prayers with Flapjack in his bed, and once Momma Beth left, she softly patted the bed to signal Flapjack it was okay to jump up. It wasn’t long until Beth caught on and snuck back into Lizzie’s room to peek, but the forlorn look in the dog’s droopy eyes was enough to convince her to exit again without protest.
After a couple weeks, Beth decided to enlarge Barlow’s kittie door into the back yard, allowing Flapjack to use it also. The standoffish cat had even been observed lying up against his bony head from time to time, while they all watched television in the evening.
Mr. Flapjack had developed into the perfect pet. He was a gentle giant, and distributed nuzzles and slurps to everyone alike. He only barked when a stranger came to the door—discovering he was a stranger caused the fleeing postman considerable dismay—and his only desires seemed to be food, a scratch behind his ear, a bit of cavorting in the back yard, or a long walk.
All that made it even more puzzling for Lizzie, when she came out the back door and discovered her dog peering through the chain link fence bordering the woods. Silent and stock still, with his head bent slightly to the side, he appeared to be listening, so Lizzie looked about, listening too. He remained in that position for several more minutes, and then seemed to shake himself. Turning, he spied his young mistress and bounded happily to meet her. Wrapping her arms around his thick neck, she asked, “What was it, boy? What did you see? Was it a rabbit, huh? Did you see a bunny? Come on, it’s time to go inside now.” Flapjack followed his mistress obediently, but he glanced over his shoulder once more before disappearing inside.
Several days later, while the three enjoyed an after-dinner ice cream, Beth mentioned casually, “You know, I have a new semester starting in a few weeks, and I have to start preparing. Why don’t you and I go out in the yard tonight and collect some lightning bugs? Then you can help me get them ready for class.”
Leaping up, Lizzie breathlessly replied, “Sure! These dishes will only take a minute,” practically throwing the bowls into the dishwasher. Chuckling, Beth walked into the spare bedroom that served as her workshop. Taking down several quart-size jars and her backpack, she began making preparations.
“Honey, get two flashlights out of the drawer and make sure they have good batteries.”
“Okay!” came the muffled reply, and within minutes, all was ready.
As they exited the house, Flapjack slipped by them, determined to be included. “Oh no, boy. We’re working here,” Beth admonished.
“Oh, he’s okay, Mom, let him come. He’ll be good!”
Beth stopped in her tracks.
It was the first time Lizzie had not called her Momma Beth. Her attention diverted, she wordlessly allowed the standoff to pass, and they immersed themselves in the business of catching the luminescent insects by the light of the full summer moon. While Beth coaxed the flashing insects into her jars, Flapjack bounded playfully at the lights dancing about his back yard. He tried again and again to ensnare one in his snapping jaws, while Lizzie ran in front of him, pointing out the biggest and best insects for him to chase.
Flapjack made a sudden turn to dive after one evasive foe, and bowled Lizzie heels over head. Beth started forward, but Lizzie sat up quickly, laughing hysterically and sputtering when Flapjack engulfed her with slobbery kisses. They all ended up on the grass, mother and daughter giggling, while their oversized playmate ran about, barking to get them up and running again.
Suddenly, he stopped short, his head twisting toward the woods. Trotting over to the fence line, he sat on his haunches and stared.
“What in the wor—” began Beth.
An eerie howl split the night air. It seemed to go on forever, rising in pitch and holding, before slowly falling off. Beth felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and Lizzie stood frozen, staring up into the hills. Beth had completed her graduate work in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, and had heard her share of coyotes yelping.
This wasn’t a coyote.
The howl was stronger—almost demanding—and lacked the mournful tone of a coyote’s lament. Flapjack whined then sprang up to pace back and forth, hunching his shoulders and sniffing ceaselessly. Another howl burst forth, this one closer.
Keeping her eyes on the dog, Beth commanded, “Honey, go inside. Everything is fine, but I think you should go in for a minute.” A third howl cut off any protest the youngster might have made, and the slamming screen door was evidence of her compliance. Turning her attention back to the woods line, Beth considered the agitated canine. “Come on, boy. Let’s go inside. We got enough bugs tonight, anyway.”
Suddenly, a faint rustling came from just inside the trees, and as her eyes snapped toward the sound, she could swear she saw a shadow flitting by an opening. Flapjack’s whimpering elevated and he was now standing with ears up. Suddenly, he bounded forward and cleared the fence in one leap. Beth scarcely had time to scream “Flapjack!” before he disappeared into the blackness of the forest.