Haley and I have to wait for several more cars to fly by before we can follow. When we push our way into the woods, through the reaching claws of overgrown bushes, there is no sign of either boy or dog. It’s even hotter inside the dense, weed-choked thicket, and we stand there panting for a moment before Haley points and exclaims, “Look!”
The fishing rod is wedged beneath a bush, where it spasms as though possessed. We move around the bush and follow the line deeper into the woods. There we find Rock, tugging helplessly against the fishing line, which is wrapped several times around a tree, and Purness standing before him. Rock gives a pitiful whine, and I wince every time his cheek is stretched taut by the tension in the line. I worry that he’s going to pull too hard and the hook is going to rip right out of his cheek, but I don’t know what to do. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.
Purness kneels on the ground in front of Rock and places his hands gently on either side of the dog’s head. Rock whimpers, and Purness shushes him. Then he places his head against Rock’s and closes his eyes. Almost immediately, Rock calms down. He sits down, putting some slack back on the line, and his whining lessens.
Haley seems mesmerized by all this, and maybe I am too, just a little bit. There’s nothing supernatural about it, but watching Purness kneel completely motionless, matching his breathing to Rock’s, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking there’s a bit of magic going on. Haley tiptoes over and squats down next to Rock. Purness opens his eyes, and a look passes between him and my daughter. Haley strokes Rock’s golden fur and murmurs, “It’s okay, Rock. It’s okay.”
A moment later, the others blunder into the woods behind us. Clyde comes first, then Sabrina, who is inexplicably still recording video. Clyde’s gaze follows the fishing line up and around the tree. He wipes sweat from his brow and says, “God dang it, Rock.”
Haley moves aside as Clyde lumbers over and squats down. Purness shifts around to Rock’s back and holds him in place. We all gather around and watch as Clyde removes a short length of fishing line from his pocket and ties it in a loop around the exposed curve of the hook. He nods to Purness and the boy tightens his grip on the dog. Then, in one deft motion, Clyde presses down on the hook’s eyelet and yanks the loop of fishing line in the opposite direction. Just like that, the hook is out.
Clyde climbs to his feet and holds the hook up for us all to see. Its tip is stained red. “And that there, ladies and gentlemen, is why you don’t ever use a barbed hook.”
Sabrina taps her phone screen and puts it away. She moves forward to get a closer look. “How did you do that?”
Clyde’s grin is lopsided. “What, you think I ain’t never got a fishing hook caught in someone’s cheek before?”
To my surprise, Sabrina’s laughter is genuine. As Clyde unwinds the line from the tree and reels it back into the rod, he launches into a story about an ill-fated fishing trip that he and his buddy Jeff went on. As Clyde heads back out of the woods, Rock wriggles out of Purness’s grasp and returns to his place at Clyde’s heel, as if nothing even happened. Sabrina is close behind, though it’s unclear if she’s actually listening to the story. Purness and Haley follow, not talking, but sticking close to each other.
I remain rooted in place, feeling like more than a bystander. My love and admiration for my husband have never been greater, and yet, at the same time, Rock’s thoughtless willingness to forgive and forget feels like a betrayal from a creature whose defining trait is supposed to be loyalty.
When I get back to the picnic spot, I am surprised to see Clyde and Sabrina together at the picnic table. They’re both drinking beer as Clyde tells his story with his whole body. I’m about to intervene and scold my husband for giving a 17-year-old alcohol, but I stop myself when I realize that this is the first time I’ve ever seen Sabrina look at Clyde with something other than barely concealed disgust.
Purness and Haley sit side by side at the edge of the lake, still not talking, still not touching. The space between them is but a hair’s breadth. Once more I quell the urge to do something, to try to control the situation. Maybe nothing is happening, or maybe something is happening, but either way I just don’t have it in me right now to be the bad guy.
Instead, I return to the tree where Haley and I were sitting just a short while ago. A breeze comes in off the lake, stirring up little waves for the first time. It feels good on my face.
Rock pads over, tongue lolling, and lies down by my side. He puts his head in my lap and looks up at me. I bury my fingers in his sun-warmed fur, and for maybe the first time today, I let myself smile.
Justin Eisenstadt’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, Swarm, The Ilanot Review, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, among others. He also co-writes a blog, “We Write Together,” with his partner, fellow fiction writer Katherine Bell. Originally from Baltimore, Justin now lives with Katie and their three cats in Spokane, Washington.”