Homecoming

It was harder then he expected to put his hand on the tiny dog’s head. Princess Lilliput (or “pup” as he called it all these years) had always been a little ball of fluff. Not a purse-sized fashion accessory like those rich girls on TV, but his wrinkled old hand reached across both ears easily. Pup whined, looking up at him. It had been a long time since it bounced playfully across the living room, scratching the wood floor.

“It’s gonna be fine, pup, you’re just gonna go to sleep and feel better.” The dog’s head settled down again and he swallowed. Damn vet’s office always made his throat dry lately, they needed a humidifier. Made his eyes sting too. The vet reappeared and within a short time it was over. By the time Cassidy came home from college next week he would have the ashes and they’d decide what to do with them.

Back when he’d been a kid they just buried their dogs, but back then there was no painless injections and far too many dangers around the farm. He received a brochure from the front desk on handling grief and stuck it in his coat pocket. At least now he knew he wouldn’t come in to find it had torn down his good coat to sleep on anymore. His coat would probably smell like dog forever though.

He got in the truck and took a deep breath. Part of him wanted to open the passenger door and pat the seat so pup would jump up. The mutt had always had an impressive jump for such a little beast. His wife had always liked making the dog jump for treats, despite him grumbling about it scratching up the cabinets in the kitchen.

The last time Cassidy had been home was when her mother, his wife, had passed. She’d cried a lot at the funeral, and afterwards. She’d always been an emotional one, clearly taking after her mother. He’d grieved in his own quiet way, but blubbering made him uncomfortable. She’d cried on the phone too, when they talked about what to do about pup. She’d gotten the dog over a decade ago, and it’d taken a long time and many phone calls and tears to decide to put it to sleep. She would probably cry when he picked her up too, but that was okay. Even if it made him uncomfortable, if his little girl needed to cry, he wanted her too.

His wife had always said showing emotion was a good thing, especially for girls. He didn’t know about that, but he trusted her to know best on such things. He usually just waited it out, she always cheered up again afterwards.

The farmhouse loomed up against the grey sky. It looked like rain, which was good. The lawn was brown with drought this year, and even his little garden bed was looking a bit gloomy. He pulled up under the big oak at the end of the driveway and sat in the truck for a moment, listening to the metal tick as it settled. He got out, the lanyard keychain Cassidy had made him one year at summer camp in one hand. The front door was unlocked. They were so far out nobody would bother to break in, and there wasn’t much worth stealing. He’d never been much for technology, other than the TV. His computer was only used when Cassidy wanted to show him something, or if he needed to send her a letter. She’d set him up an online address, and given him hers, saying the post service took too long.

The light on the porch was out, and he dug around in the closet by the front door, pulling out a new bulb to replace it. Inside, he sat down in his recliner, put his feet up, and turned on the TV. Cassidy knew he was having the dog put to sleep today, but had said she needed to focus on finals and didn’t need a call. He would get to talk to her when she got to the airport anyways. His chair felt strange and he put the foot rest back down, getting up to grab the rough throw that was always sitting on the couch. He got himself a beer as well and tossed the throw across his cold legs. He’d never had problems with cold before, but age was finally catching up to him he supposed. Hopefully he’d kick it before Cassidy put him in one of those “Senior Living Communities” he kept getting mail about. Nothing about those sounded appealing.

Cassidy worried about him being alone now, he knew. Right after her mother had died she asked if he was going to move to a smaller house near other people. He’d shrugged off the idea. He’d already been living alone for months beforehand, while his wife was in the hospital. Now he just had less reason to leave. He finally paid attention to the TV and found himself watching a noisy cartoon. Cassidy would give him a hard time if she caught him watching one of those, after he always told her they’d rot her mind. He was too old to worry about mind rot though, and Pup liked the songs.

He looked down at the throw covering his legs. Usually Pup would’ve climbed up to lay across his legs and watch TV with him. His wife always teased him about that, but after the dog had killed a few rats he thought it’d earned that much. Cassidy hadn’t cried when Pup killed a rat the first time, she knew it was for the best that time. Instead she’d been thrilled that he approved of the dog for a brief moment.

He went to bed, casting a sideways glance at Pup’s collar and tags on the nightstand. The collar was worn out and the tags were battered from too many misadventures under the porch and in the barn. He’d rescued that dog a few times after it got wedged into some narrow hole. He put them in the drawer before climbing under the covers.

***

The rest of the week he found himself working out in the garden, going into town to run errands and stock up for Cassidy’s visit, and visiting his wife’s grave to tidy up. Anything seemed better than being in the house. The weather stayed gloomy, which was normal for this time of year, and he kept hoping for rain.

***

It rained the night she flew in. It was late and the thunder boomed overhead as he drove them home from the airport. She had cried a little and hugged him, and now she stared silently out the window.

“Took this storm all week to break.” He said finally.

“It’s a good thing it finally did, I know the area’s been dry for a while now. They were getting worried about wildfires on the news.” She looked over at him finally. Her eyes were a little puffy, but she smiled a little.

“The garden’s looking a bit sad too, I had to buy beans this week.”

“Hah, mom would never hear of buying beans this time of year, it must have been bad.”

“The gopher came back too, I guess I’ll have to get someone to get rid of it this year.” He saw her frown a little, “Humane trapping, I know I know.”

“I remember when you used to insist the only good rodent was a dead one. You were so happy when Lilliput manage to get that rat in the cellar.”

“I guess I’ve gone soft with age. That dog was a pretty good rat catcher though, for a little fluffball.”

“She just wanted to please you was all. Knew who the alpha dog was to get in with.”

“Bah, it was your dog.”

“Yeah but I know you loved her too, ya big softy.” Cassidy nudged his elbow and he harrumphed.

They couldn’t pick the remains up until the next day, so they drove straight to the farm instead. Cassidy took her bags upstairs to her old room despite his attempt to help, and he settled down in front of the TV with the throw across his legs again. When she came back downstairs she went straight into the kitchen.

“Want a beer?” She called from the fridge.

“Sure. Help yourself to food too.” He flipped through a few channels until she handed him a cold bottle and sat herself down with a sandwich on the couch.

“Let me find something.” She took the remote and flipped around until they reached cartoons again. He made a face but she grinned at him and left it. They sat and watched a few shows until she started drifting off, and then both made their way to bed.

One of his side projects for the week sat on the nightstand and he picked it up, inspecting it carefully. It had turned out pretty well, he would show her in the morning after they picked up the remains.

***

Going back to the vet’s office they rode in silence. The storm was taking a break, only drizzling on them as they went inside. Cassidy was trying not to cry, he could tell, as they handed her the box with their condolences. It seemed wrong somehow that the dog was now reduced to a bag of dust in a box. She made it to the truck before she started crying, and he pulled out as the tears fell. Thunder rumbled in the distance and instead of heading home he drove to the store across the street, parking in the parking lot.

“I… um…” It was hard to look at her when she cried. Her face always turned red and her eyes puffy. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his side-project, laying it on top of the box. She picked it up and looked at it, the tears drying a little, “I thought since I had her tags I should try and make something for you to keep a little bit of her with you… it’s nothing fancy, but it’s better than a box.”

She looked at him and he was pretty sure she was going to start crying again. She held up the little bottle, which had Princess Lilliput’s tag carefully wrapped around it so her name was visible, by it’s cord, “It’s perfect… thank’s dad.” She did start crying again, but it was silent and she was smiling. He supposed that was better.

“Have you thought about what you want to do with… with Pup?”

“I have an idea… but I think it should wait till after the storm.”

He nodded and looked over at the store, “How about you help me pick up some proper food for dinner?”

“What, besides your fridge full of delicacies such as ‘lunch meat’ and ‘raw vegetables’?”

“Yes, besides that.” He made a grumpy face at her and she laughed a little.

“How about franks and beans?”

“I think I can boil some franks.” He got of the truck and waited while she carefully set the box on the passenger seat and joined him.

***

After dinner they’d managed to carefully funnel some of Princess Lilliput’s remains into the bottle and sealed the rest up, setting it on the coffee table by the couch.

“I’m sorry your first visit home in a while is so sad.” He said, settling down again with a glass of water this time.

“I kind of knew this would happen. She was getting old. I’m sorry the first time you see me in ages is when I’m crying. I know it always makes you uncomfortable.”

He shoved some more beans in his face instead of responding and she smiled a little, changing the channel to a sitcom.

***

The next morning after a breakfast of eggs Cassidy had insisted on buying and bacon he’d snuck into the cart they sat outside on the porch. The storm was blowing away finally, but the yard was soaking wet and the truck looked cleaner than it had in years.

“So… what do you want to do? With pup I mean…”

“Well…” She sighed heavily and tucked some loose hairs behind her ear, “If you don’t object, I’d like to spread her ashes here… keep her at the farm, ya know?”

“That sounds fine.” He nodded, feeling the wind pick up a little, “Should be cleared up by tomorrow.”

They sat in silence for a long time. It wasn’t awkward, they simply didn’t need words for the moment. A few crows cawed in the distance and he finally broke the silence.

“Want to go to Bumbo’s for lunch?”

“Oh man, Bumbo’s is still in business?”

“Hank’s son took over. The pizza’s pretty edible now.”

“Is there still that creepy robot bear in the corner?”

“Yeah but he put a top hat on it.”

“Oh man, I have to see that.” She stood up and dusted herself off, “What time is it?”

He pulled out his keyring, which had a little pocket watch attached to it, “About five to ten, by the time we get to town they’ll be open.”

She grinned and  headed for the truck, tapping on the hood impatiently. As they drove she asked him about other things in town and he filled her in on the changes. Her last trip had been shorter and there hadn’t been much time for catching up before she had to leave again.

“So I was thinking…” He said during a pause in her questions, “I know it’s a bit soon but, if you like, I would consider, maybe…. getting you another dog.”

She raised an eyebrow at him and after a moments silence where he panicked that he’d said something wrong she smiled broadly, “I suppose you’d still have to keep it at the farm until I’m out of college though, huh?”

“I suppose.” He avoided eye contact by staring intently at the red light they were stopped at, “Just until you graduate.”

“Maybe I’d want to get a slightly bigger one, one that could look after you too for me.”

“I don’t need looking after, but sure.”

“Uh-huh.” She tapped her chin as if considering it, “Alright dad, how about after we spread the ashes we’ll ask around. I think the Spencer’s usually had a surplus of hounds around.”

“We’re picking it out for you, remember, so get the one you want.” He was trying hard to hide his smile at the idea.

“Yeah, Princess Lilliput the second.” She laughed at the face he made. The light turned green and they drove on towards the pizza place.

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