“Come on, Bella, move your butt. You need this walk more than I do.” Allie gently pushed the old dog’s front leg as she pulled on her coat and swung open the back door. “That’s it girl . . . once you get moving you’ll be fine.”
Never again, Allie thought, as she and Bella began their walk through the garden and out to the network of paths that surrounded the cabin nestled beside the lake shore. The next time she and John looked for a dog, they would look a lot harder. Bella was a rescue dog. They had been told she was six-years-old when they picked her up. The paperwork said eight and the vet had said probably closer to ten. Bella was almost deaf, cataracts were slowly cutting off her vision, rotting teeth and bad hips rounded out the package.
The beginning stages of the walk were comically hard to watch, as Bella tipped this way and that trying to get her footing – she had recently had an inner ear problem that made her lose her balance on the uneven ground. But after she got going, the weaving and falling seemed to level off and the walk turned into an enjoyable forty-minute tromp along paths often surrounded by tall evergreens. Bella would try and frisk around now and then – running tight circles inside a large fern bush or scampering between the heather shrubs that poked up all over.
Coming down a hill and off a path that wove through the trees, Allie passed the cabin and rounded a corner beyond the garden. She headed out on the path that ran along the lake shore in front of the cabin. Bella gamboled past her and ran ahead on the trail.
What happened next happened faster than Allie could have ever imagined anything happening. She felt something brush against her leg as it streaked past. A blur of golden movement – her mind registered the thought – cougar – at the moment that the cat overtook Bella in a sinuous leap that literally froze Allie’s breath. Bella had stopped and turned back to face Allie a fraction of an instant before the cougar thumped down on her. The dog’s high pitched yelp was cut-off only seconds after it began. The cat, still propelled forward by her leap, moved several more feet along the path before it stopped and turned back to stare at Allie – Bella’s head was firmly grasped in gaping jaws and her body hung limp down to the cat’s feet.
Allie began to back up, slowly, step by step, keeping her eyes trained on the cat’s flicking tail. She reached the curve of the path that led to the cabin’s back door. When she could no longer see the cougar she turned and ran, fumbling with the doorknob, her panicked breath rattling and gasping from her body. The door swung open and with one wild stare back over her shoulder, Allie bolted into the cabin and slammed the door behind her. She turned quickly to look out the door’s window – nothing.
Allie sped through the cabin staring wildly out of every window – nothing, anywhere. Her hands and legs began to tremble. She collapsed into the old rocker in the kitchen and replayed the last few minutes. A dull, sick feeling of helplessness washed over her. Had she abandoned Bella to a gruesome death? Could she have done anything?
Then out of nowhere, the reel playing over and over in her mind altered – she felt the cat brush against her leg as it passed her, she saw the blur of movement and the cat’s leap. But where Bella had stood, she now saw her four-year-old granddaughter, turning towards her with a huge smile on her face. Whenever Sophie visited, from the moment she could toddle along on her own, they had walked those paths together, over and over. But this time, in Allie’s mind, the smile on Sophie’s face turned to a look of pure terror. The sound cut off was no longer a dog’s yelp but a child’s high-pitched shriek.
Allie’s mind clamped shut over the image of Sophie’s body hanging out of the cougar’s mouth. She rocked slowly back and forth and whispered, over and over, a desperate litany of words – words that she knew made no sense, but words she knew she now meant with every fiber of her being. I can’t live here anymore. I can’t live here anymore.
Illustration by: Grace Gao