Ow! My nose bumped against a barrier. I couldn’t make out my surroundings because of the darkness. With my sense of sight rendered useless, I decided that depending on my sense of touch was the next best option. Taking two carefully calculated steps backward resulted in my backside hitting another barrier. After a couple more sidesteps for further research purposes, I concluded that I was enclosed in some sort of box.
I nudged my nose against the box once more. I found that with the adequate amount of force I could move the box. So, I began to inch my enclosure forward, with no plans of what to do next. My nudging technique had almost gained myself five inches when the sound of footsteps and voices grew louder.
I heard three voices, but they sounded somewhat distant and slightly muffled through my box. Two of the voices sounded older. These voices spoke in even and measured tones like they had mastered their inflections. But their pitches differed. One voice had a lower pitch, the other a higher pitch.
The third voice rang out, distinct from the other two. This voice was considerably higher and carried energy comparable to a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. This voice talked over the other two, ranging from excitable shouting to animated whispering. It seemed as though the two other voices constantly tried to reign in the third voice.
“Hurry up!” The third voice grew louder. “I know we’re not celebrating until tonight, but can I please open my presents now?”
The lower-pitched voice spoke. “Lottie, you know that your mom worked really hard to plan a special dinner for your birthday—tonight.” A heavy, defeated sigh came from the third voice. “But maybe if you ask her nicely, she’ll let you open just one present.”
“Okay.” Lottie’s voice returned to its normal bubbly meter. “Mom, can I please open just one present, and I’ll save the rest for tonight?”
“Mm.” Mom sucked in a breath before she answered. “All right, if it’s okay with Dad, it’s okay with me.” A squeal came from the third voice. Excited footsteps thundered toward my box. My mission of escape was now long forgotten.
“This one!” Now Lottie was right next to my box.
“Are you sure?” Dad asked.
“Yes,” Lottie answered.
“Okay,” Mom said. “Go ahead. Open it.”
I watched as my box enclosure was lifted, and light came flooding in. Looking up, I saw the face of a girl. She stared back at me, and a huge smile broke out on her face. She tossed the box aside.
“Happy tenth birthday, Lottie!” both Mom and Dad shouted in unison.
“A puppy!” She knelt on her knees and threw her arms around my neck. She whispered her next words just in my ear. “I’ve been waiting for you for my whole life.” She squeezed me even tighter. In response, I licked her face and wagged my tail. She laughed and wiped her cheek. “I’m going to name you Charlie,” Lottie said. I barked in agreement. So, that was the beginning of it. The beginning of my family—my pack.
Dad really liked to scratch behind my ears and tell me that I was a good boy. Mom seemed to like me too, except for when I tracked mud into the house. Because of the aforementioned mud among other not-so-clean bathroom habits of mine, Mom decided that I would be an outside dog. Lottie and I campaigned for weeks to alter her decision. We took drastic measures to improve my behavior to inside-dog level. Lottie taught me how to wipe my paws on the mat before I went inside. She bought me real chew toys so I’d quit swiping toilet paper rolls as stand-ins. She even attempted to train me to do my business outside. (This feat required some extra assistance from Dad.)
Finally, we convinced Mom to let me back inside full-time. Lottie and I became inseparable. I walked her to the bus stop each morning and picked her up each afternoon when she was finished. In between, I patiently lay on the floor in Lottie’s room, catching up on missed naps. Once Lottie came home, I would lie under the kitchen table and wait for her to do her homework. We usually played tug of war afterward until Dad came home.
When we heard his car pull in the driveway, we both would race to the door. Lottie would open it just an inch, and we both peered out with one eye. She always waited until Dad turned off the car and got out. Then she would swing the door open, and I bounded out. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me toward Dad. I barked and jumped up at him to welcome him back. He gave me the expected ear scratch. And right on cue, Lottie would run out of the house and toward Dad with arms extended. They would always hug each other as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.
Then Mom would stick her head out of the still-open door and tell everybody to come inside. They would all sit down at the table for dinner while I positioned myself next to Lottie. She would always slip me parts of her meal—especially if it was any sort of mushy vegetable. When bedtime came, Lottie would settle in under her covers. Then I would jump onto the bed and position myself with my head within petting range. That was our routine. Lottie was the last thing I saw when I fell asleep and the first thing when I opened my eyes. Everything was perfect, until Mom got sick.
When Lottie was twelve, Mom started leaving the house for hours. When she returned, she spent most of her time in bed. I knew something was really wrong when she didn’t even care that I climbed on the couch with my mud-soaked paws. Her normal optimistic and energetic demeanor faded.
After a couple of months, she would constantly wear wraps on her head.
The house was quieter then. No more games of tug of war. Lottie was never in the mood anymore. No more greeting Dad in the driveway. He always came rushing in to check on Mom before acknowledging anyone else. No more loud conversations over dinner at the kitchen table. Takeout containers littered the table and counters. Each dreary day seemed to blend into the next.
But there’s one day I remember perfectly. Mom walked into the house. Her arm was looped through Dad’s . She usually looked tired afterward, but this time was different. This time her eyes weren’t shining. Instead, they looked red and puffy. Dad wore the same despairing expression. He kept twisting his wedding ring around his finger .
Lottie came in from school later that afternoon. She let her backpack drop straight to the floor and walked into Mom’s room. Dad’s voice wavered as he told her that he and Mom needed to talk to her. Lottie’s eyes grew bigger and filled with tears. Mom began to stroke Lottie’s hair. Tears ran down her face too. Dad squeezed Mom’s other hand as he tried to stifle his own sobs. I entered the room and went straight to Lottie. I pushed my nose against her hand. I just wanted her to know that I was there too.
Everyone’s tears and sobs continued throughout the night.
Soon after, Mom, Dad, and Lottie left the house and me. The neighbor came to feed me and let me outside each day, but I missed my family. I sat each day in front of the door and waited for them to come back. One day the door opened, and in walked Lottie and Dad. I wagged my tail and began panting, then raced to meet them. I began jumping and trying to lick them.
“Not now, Charlie,” Dad said. “Please . . . just not now.” He started rubbing his eyes before walking away. He yanked his black tie off and tossed it onto the couch. He walked into his room and shut the door.
I felt my tail stop wagging, and I looked back at Lottie. She was rubbing the fabric of her black dress between her fingers. She just stared ahead at nothing. I stepped forward to nudge her hand with my nose, but she didn’t react to it. Instead, she began walking to her room. I followed her. She climbed into her bed and pulled the covers over her face. The blankets rose and fell with each of her sobs. I climbed up on the bed and laid my head on Lottie’s stomach. Eventually, her gasping breaths de-escalated into shallow sniffing.
“Lottie,” I thought. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t help you or Dad, but I wish I could. That’s all I want to do.”
At first, Dad and Lottie only lived day to day. Dad stayed away from the house for longer periods of time. Lottie said that he had to work so much because of how much time he had taken off for Mom. Neither Lottie nor Dad seemed to want to talk to each other much anymore. By the time Dad came home, Lottie would already be settled in her room. “Good morning” and “Good night” summed up most of their conversations. I didn’t know a lot about humans, being a dog and all. But one night, I invented a plan to reunite Lottie and Dad.
“Charlie boy!” Lottie exclaimed when she opened the door. “Oh, I missed you so much.” She ruffled my ears, and I responded by licking her face before she could push me away.
Lottie sat at the table, working on homework, while I attempted to wrestle her sock off her foot. Once she finished, we played outside for an hour. Normally our time consisted of me chasing her as she taunted me by holding one of my toys hostage. Afterward, it was time for dinner.
“What’s on the menu for tonight, Charlie?” Lottie asked. I answered with a resounding woof!
“Peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” Lottie feigned an astonished reaction. “I was thinking the same thing.” I stood on my hind legs to peer over the counter at the PB&J. Lottie shooed me away at first, but after she finished making her sandwich, she scooped a spoonful of peanut butter for me.
Even after my snack I was right on her heels as she carried her plate to the couch. We watched TV, which extended even an hour or two after we were done eating. Then I felt my ears perk up at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. While I jumped off the couch and toward the door, Lottie started toward her room.
“You’re not getting away that easily,” I thought. My tail began to wag back and forth as I heard the click of a lock. Dad swung open the door, and I greeted him with a big kiss on the face.
“Woah,” Dad said, startled as he dropped his bag and coat. “What’s with all the love, huh? You’re usually with Lottie in her room when I get home.”
“Not tonight, I’m not,” I thought.
“Hey, Dad,” Lottie’s voice called out from her room.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Dad said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“It’s okay.” An awkward pause hung in the air. “Um, I’m probably going to bed soon, so . . . goodnight.”
“Right, um . . .” Dad started walking toward Lottie’s room.
“Yes, go see her,” I thought. “Go talk to her!”
But he stopped three steps short of her door. “Ha—have a good night’s sleep.” He parted his lips as if more words were on the tip of his tongue. Then he closed his mouth and walked back into the living room and sank onto the couch.
“No, you were so close,” I thought. “Why did you stop?”
Still, I decided to move on to the next phase of my plan. I pushed Lottie’s door open with my nose. She was curled up on her bed, reading a book, so I climbed up next to her. I bit onto the corner of her book and pulled it out of her hands.
“Hey, Charlie,” she protested. “Give it back.” But I was already walking out of her room and back into the living room. Dad had already turned on the TV. He tilted his head in confusion at me when I appeared with a book between my teeth.
“Charlie, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Slobbering all over my book,” Lottie said as she rounded the corner. She bent down to reach my eye level. She tried to yank her book back, but I tightened my grip. The tug-of-war only lasted for a few seconds until I emerged victorious. Happily, I jumped onto the couch and released the book, letting it fall onto the cushions. Lottie immediately picked it up to examine the damage.
“No,” she whined. “Some of the pages are soggy now.” She let out a defeated sigh as she plopped down on the couch.
“Perfect, now Dad just needs to not mess it up,” I thought.
He picked up the book and flipped through the pages. I tried to squint at him to let him know that this was a crucial part of the plan.
“You know,” he began, “I think this will be fine. It just needs some time, but it’ll be okay. Maybe it won’t look the same as it did before. Some of pages might be curled, but it’ll still be the same book. And you’ll still be able to read it.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Lottie smiled. “And—uh . . . do you mind if I stayed out here with you since I can’t read anymore?”
“Yes.” A smile had spread on Dad’s face now. “I would—I would really like that.”
So they sat in silence, watching the nightly news. My eyelids grew heavier and heavier as the night continued. One of the last things I remember before falling asleep was looking over at Dad and Lottie. She too had a drowsy look in her eyes. Her lashes kept fluttering closed before she would force them open again in an effort to stay awake.
Eventually, she succumbed to sleepiness, and her head rested against Dad’s chest. He looked down at Lottie, and I saw the corners of his eyes crinkle as another smile overtook his face. I hadn’t seen him smile like that since Mom died.
My own eyes closed, and I had one last thought before drifting to sleep. “They’re going to be okay. Even after everything, they’re going to be okay."