“King, there’s a sparkle there!” Sun points her paw excitedly into the water in front of King’s nose, and I, sitting back to watch the entertaining lesson, give a bark of joy when the dappled dog dunks his head down into the water, jaws wide open. When he comes back up, though, there is nothing in his mouth, and Sun’s exclamation of, “Aww, King!!!” makes him jump toward her playfully, bowling her over away from the streambed.
Then I begin to feel this strange, sickening sensation. It feels like... Jealousy. I think. But I’ve never been jealous before. I mean, other than the momentary feeling when I first met King, who my best friend had been eyeing, very pleasurably. This, all in all, is the first time, and I don’t like it one bit. It’s not me. Watching King and Sun play together makes me feel like some overprotective, overly worried nutcase. The sickening sensation is making me want to rip them off of each other and throw them in two different directions. But, forcefully, I shake myself out of my stupor, going to look into the stream in front of me. My thoughts are pointless; they’re not going to get me anywhere.
Sun and King are barking happily in the background, and I let my eyes wander through the ripples of the river’s surface, seeing the flashes and sparkles that Sun must’ve been talking about. Naturally, I flick a paw toward the water to catch one of those glinting shimmers before it leaves my sight, striking with simple precision and pulling the fish out of the water before it can get away. I open my jaws to grasp it firmly between my teeth, then lay it on the ground once it’s quit wiggling and bark for the others to join me and eat it. For awhile, I push my miserable thoughts away and try to focus on the succulent meat on my tongue.
“Mmm… Wick, this is delicious! Good catch,” murmurs Sun gratefully, taking a bite of the cool meat of the fish, and King nods alongside her with a contented huff, chewing in pleasure and then after swallowing, licking his now-fish-tainted chops. I glance down in embarrassment, nodding slightly. My mind is telling myself not to say anything, because even though I don’t have a barbed tongue, and nothing dreadful has been even close to being said, jealousy could set me off enough to get some rude words out there, and I’m not about to let that happen.
King, looking up at Sun, asks mildly, “So do you have any future plans? I mean… Different from what I’ve heard already?”
Sun glances keenly at him. “What is it that you’ve heard?”
He pauses, then replies simply, “Your plans with Wick-” At my name he takes a sharp glance at me, then turns his head away and continues speaking to Sun. When I stare at him in confusion, he pays no attention to me, and Sun just gives me a quick glance of surprise and continues listening to him. “That’s all.”
Seeing the suddenly defensive look on my face, I expect Sun to back me up somehow, but she just keeps talking. At first I’m disgruntled by this ignorance of what has just happened, but then I try to tell myself I’m taking things too personally. There isn’t anything wrong, Wick. Not a thing. He only looked at you. So I finish my meal and flop down on my belly with a huff. Feelings can be stressful.
Laying down and resting with my back facing them, I try to set myself into a state of drowsiness, but my ears keep perking up and hearing the conversation Sun and King are having. It seems to be steering strangely away from me each time my name is said. There’s always a pause from King, and then he changes topic completely.
“Do you want to hear how Wick and I met?” Sun’s question is innocent, unwary. But when I feel the sudden crackling irritation in the air I lift my head to glance over at King, a guarded expression on my face. He is stiff and still, glaring away from both of us, as if trying not to lose control of his actions. Then he whispers something quietly, perhaps even a bit icily.
“I’m not all that curious.” He looks as if he’s trying to hide some undisclosed cloud of rage, and I can’t bring myself to understand why. But I’m starting to think he might need a temper check. I grunt with held back laughter at my own joke, but try not to let them see my body shiver with it.
“Tell me a different story,” he suggests suddenly. The underlying exasperation of his tone sends sudden, grating anger through me; this is undeniably some early sign of bullying. Little alarms go off in my head but I reason that his grumpiness will not last. Surely it will not last; I haven’t done anything wrong to him.
Even though he hasn’t said much, his tone makes it difficult to focus on the positive side of possibilities.
First Sun’s gaze is baffled, which gives me some hope that she’ll do something, say something to get some needed sense knocked into this dog, but then her chime of, “Okay!” plummets my small wishes far down into a deeply dug hole. She’s going to ignore his attitude.
“But,” King adds. “How about a story that’s not all about Wick? I’ve already heard quite a bit about her.” When nobody answers him, he just goes on. Why is he still talking about his opinion? “Just… Not so keen for that, thank you very much.” That tone is still there. It spikes my fur.
Usually I’m not one to lose my temper, but right now I’m trying hard to bite back a snarl, and turning my head rigidly to Sun, I see the credulous look she has on her face. She seems speechless, her jaws slightly open as if she wants to say something but doesn’t know what it is that she wants to say… Is she going to back me up? I can’t even understand what’s happening here; all I know is King is making a problem out of something that shouldn’t be a problem.
But before anyone else speaks, he shakes his head, finishing, “Never mind it. Anyway, tell me about how you traveled to this forest. Before you met her,” and it’s over. Sun, seeming to forget what has just happened, gets this peaceful look in her eyes and begins her story.
“Well, you see, I wasn’t raised by dogs like you probably were…” Her soothing voice, through all the anger and frustration, makes my eyes slowly grow heavier, but knowing King is there continues to drag me back to full alert each time I get sleepy, so eventually I stand up and leave the riverside altogether. When Sun calls to me, I explain I’m just going for a short walk. In my mind, though, all I can think about is how excited I am to get away from King’s sudden slighting. Poking and prodding, slowly, as if hoping for me to lose my temper.
The light filtering through the trees is warm, feathering the debris on the soft ground in speckled white light. The chomping of a nut I can hear nearby. The tracks of a deer are present, pressed heavily into the earth to one side of me and trailing out into the deeper, dusky part of the forest. Then, abruptly cutting off my moments of peace, footsteps crunch toward me from behind. An emphatic bark comes from the same direction.
“Wick, slow down!” My ears prick forward at King’s voice, but certainly not with joy, more with anxiety than anything. I stop, turn, and stare at him, silent, fixing my gaze on him.
He grunts, stops himself, and stares right back at me coolly. Then, when I still say nothing, he barks slowly, “Why are you here?”
My head jerks back in surprise. “What?”
With my single unthreatening word, his gaze hardens immediately. “Are you deaf? Can you not hear me?” He glares straight into my eyes, and I try not to let my own stare waver, but after a few more moments, I can’t hold onto his gaze any longer. I drop my eyes to look at the ground for awhile.
“Don’t think you’re going to be staying here with us much longer, Wick.” A fresh flow of hatred comes into his eyes when I glance back up at him. “Sun is not for just anyone. She’s too good for some.” King, taking a threatening step toward me, pointedly raises a paw and stretches each of its claws, as if preparing to take a strike at me, and I scramble backward in terror, stopping when he’s a good five feet away from me. I can’t stop my tail from trembling so I let it fall between my legs.
For a moment he just stands there, paw still raised. But when he finally - slowly - lowers it back down to the ground, the expression on his face only frightens me more. Joy. What is he thinking? Then he speaks again.
“You know as well as I do that Sun is getting closer to me, and is growing apart from you. Away from you. Meaning soon, you won’t be needed here anymore.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Not that you ever were.”
I can feel each and every hair on me standing on end, and then he continues painfully, “Until then, we’ll be friends. Around Sun. If she’s not there, well, you’ll take what you’ll get.” Then he walks right up to me, his snout bent down so that it’s close to mine, and finishes, “And if Sun hears about this… Discussion we’ve had, there will be consequences. Do you understand?” I back away again, nodding quickly, and begin hurrying back to the riverside where Sun still is. I can hear King following at a steady, frighteningly calm pace behind me.
When I get back to the clearing, I find Sun basking lazily in the sun, but a worried expression is crinkling her brows together, and I lay down beside her.
She looks over at me, exclaims, “Hey, you’re back!” and I can see she’s about to get tail-waggy and bright-eyed, but then King steps through the bushes, sits on Sun’s other side, and Sun turns her head to him, the worried expression returning.
King gazes seriously at my closest friend. “I talked to her, and I apologized, and made sure she understood why I was being cross.” He turns his gaze back on me, and it amazes me to see how good he is at hiding his own jealousy. “I was just in a bit of a bad mood, and again, I’m really sorry… Believe me, I won’t do that again.” I nod slowly. Won’t do what again? Treat me badly? Or treat me badly in front of Sun? But I say nothing, just force a forgiving grin on my face and get the moment over with. Maybe a little tail wag too… But when I feel the shakiness of my tail, I stop wagging it and let it relax at my rump.
“Well I’m glad that whatever was upsetting you isn’t now.” She presses herself against King for a moment. “It makes me happy when my two friends get along.”
I expect silence after this innocent statement, but King responds meekly, “Yes. It makes me happy too.” He gives Sun a fond look, then me. It’s strange, because his fond gaze - that I know is meaningless - makes me want to feel a bit… Differently. My mind is telling me not to believe that fond look, for I know it’s not real, and yet, the rest of me… Wants to believe it, I guess. Though after a short moment of seeing his expression, I turn my head away quickly. What am I thinking? He’s being a bully, and far from sweet or kind… I can’t seem to grasp his reasoning. Why, of all dogs, do I have to be the target? Why couldn’t he have run into some other dog along his way, rather than us?
I just wish he would be kind all the time. But, according to our little discussion earlier, that’s not about to happen. I should be well aware of that.
When I happen to glance back, King is still staring at me, thoughtful and silent. The anxious feeling that rushes through me at this gaze sends a shiver down my spine, and I avert my gaze away from him again and toward the almost-silent stream. Sun, about to say something, begins to stand, stretching out her limbs and opening her jaws in a wide, happy yawn.
“Maybe we should go back to camp and get some fresh bedding prepared. I don’t know about you two, but mine’s getting old, and it needs to be replaced.”
King nods in agreement. “I could use some fresh bedding.” I nod too, shaking myself hurriedly, and follow them back to the camp.
“Why don’t you and King go look for moss and dry leaves? The woods in that direction” - Sun points with her nose - “usually have the best of it.” My paws shift uncomfortably. I don’t really want to be alone with King. But before I can suggest anything different, King agrees with a single slow nod.
“Sounds good. Let’s go.” He pads toward the undergrowth, pushes through the shrubs there, and I follow hesitantly. I can’t help but glance back for a moment in the hopes of not needing to go with him, but Sun has disappeared from sight through the bushes, and I turn back to keep walking.
I don’t know what I’m more afraid of. The sure possibility that he may bring up my predetermined outcasting, or the other terrifying, mean things he could say to me anytime now.
When he stops in front of me, I almost run into him. At first I assume he must’ve found some moss or leaves or something along those lines. But that’s not it. There’s nothing but dirt and grass in front of him. He turns his head back to me, gazing carefully at me for longer than could possibly be considered comfortable. Before I can bring myself to ask what’s wrong, even though I probably know what’s going through his mind, he says something that sets spikes up in my fur.
“Have you started thinking about what you’re plans are for leaving?” His unwavering gaze studies me, and I avert my eyes from his immediately.
“I, um… Well, not exactly.” The mental Wick inside me shakes her head in disappointment of my foolish response. But what else am I supposed to say? It’s not like I have made plans. It’s barely been ten minutes since he told me about his own jealous wishes and my need to disembark, to go out on my own.
His eyes don’t leave mine, and eventually I feel that I have to look back at him. It just feels like the instinctual thing to do. “Well I have,” he claims starkly, and I suddenly regret agreeing to collect moss with this mean dog who I sure don’t want to discuss this with, not ever in my whole life. “Why haven’t you? I mean, sure, you don’t want to, but I thought I got the point across that you have no choice…” He breaks off; I don’t know if he’s trying to make me more uncomfortable by pausing so consistently or if he has somehow run out of things to say at the moment. What’s surprising me at the moment is his calm way of speaking. In a case like this, I can’t picture an unkind dog acting the way he is. “Sun and I are going to be getting antsy if you take much longer...” My gaze darts away for just a horribly nerve-racking moment.
“Maybe it’d be best if we don’t talk about this right now…”
“I think ‘right now’ is probably the best time, personally.” With this I huff nervously. My heart begins to pound. I strongly dislike the idea of this even being discussed, let alone happening. I mean, shouldn’t Sun at least be here to speak for herself? As far as I know, she knows nothing about these outcasting plans… But what if she does? What if she does and she won’t stop him because she does want me gone? That small voice inside me considers this, and my ears pull back with dread.
When I don’t respond to his statement, King motions with his muzzle for me to come toward him, and he turns to begin walking again, slower now. So I walk at his side, uneasiness weighing down each pawstep, keeping a steady pace beside him.
“I know what you were thinking,” he continues, shooting a scrutinizing gaze at me. I don’t look at him. I just keep walking forward, fear of the future making my paws quiver with each movement. This is my new least-favorite-conversation-ever... an intellectual Wick grumbles pointedly inside my head. “You thought Sun would never let that happen. But as I said, I’ve been planning a lot lately.”
I can’t say I’m surprised, I think to myself. But I can definitely say I’m beginning question my future right about now... “Oh.” That’s all I can mumble.
I glance over at him. “I don’t know. I just say that sometimes.” There is silence for a moment. What I just said is literally the most pointless thing I could ever say, and I sniff with embarrassment.
More silence comes from his side. It’s as if he’s thinking very deeply, but then he starts again, seemingly hesitant from the way he opens his jaws and then doesn’t speak for a short moment. “You know, ever since I came here, I couldn’t understand what Sun saw in you. But, it amazes me to see you regard me politely like this after the things I’ve said to you. I don’t know… Maybe… Maybe you shouldn’t leave after all.” Shocked by these words, my head turns to him. What? I feel… Relieved, I think, in this discovery, but I’m not sure that I should.
“Wait,” I answer quietly. “I don’t understand.” My mind is jumbling into a huge mess of emotions that I can’t comprehend all at once. This is confusing… What’s he got going on in his head?
The look of unsureness tells me that he doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say back. “I don’t either.” Then he shakes his head. “I’m so confused. I never talk to dogs as openly as this. I mean… Not openly, I haven’t actually talked openly to you, because I haven’t even said much. But you know what I mean?” I nod. “Part of what confuses me is… Of all dogs, you’re who I’m talking to?” He breaks off momentarily. “I thought I hated you.”
At this I flinch back slightly. Hate is a strong word. But what is he implying? I stare at him, continuing to walk at his side. My steps are hesitant now rather than frightened.
“Maybe… I’m starting to have a change of heart.” He looks so unsure of himself I don’t know what to do. How did he change his mind about what he thinks about me so quickly? “Wick… This is confusing me. A lot.” What comes next is a surprise; I feel the sudden urge to reassure him, to actually huddle up next to him in hopes of cheering him up from his almost-sad confusion, and right before I can, he continues what he’s saying.
“Because you’re acting like we have some kind of relationship or something.” I freeze in my steps. “There’s this thing I learned once. It’s called sarcasm. How did you think I liked you?” He flashes a look of hatred toward me. “Maybe you learned a lesson? Don’t trust other dogs so easily.” With that, he turns his back on me and begins cutting moss from the root of a tree, slicing his claws through it precisely. My jaw falls open. I just stand there for a moment.
“Come on, start working. We haven’t got all day, you know,” King threatens with a low growl before picking up some of the moss in his jaws. He turns his head and lays it on the ground between us. “Here’s our pile; hurry up!” With that I rush toward a small pile of dried leaves and begin carrying them over to the small heap. I don’t speak. I can’t speak. He completely took me for granted, and all I can feel now is more embarrassment. My self-esteem level has just dropped rapidly. I pick a stray twig from the pile.
Once we’ve finished collecting a good sized pile, we have to take it back to camp. I can’t wait to get away from King. So I walk as fast as I can through the brush, trying my best not to drop any of the burden from my mouth, and I force myself to stare forward.
Then I hear him drop his bundle, and my muscles stiffen immediately. “Wick, stop.” When I hesitate in my steps, he growls more forcefully, “Stop.” I stop in my tracks. I can’t really help it. When I’m told to do something, I feel the need to listen to the instructions given.
“I just thought I should tell you, Sun is mine. Anyway, you leaving will be for the best. I mean…” A pause comes that somehow makes his next words seem even more intimidating than they would have been otherwise. “Can’t you agree?” With that, he picks his bundle of bedding up again, steps past me, jarring me in the side in the process, and tramps proudly back to the camp’s clearing, leaving me standing alone in the middle of the deserted path.
When my eyes begin to burn, and my mind jumbles with anxious thoughts, I take a moment for myself, to stand and breathe, recapture my composure, until finally I can keep walking home. I start moving my paws again, right then left, right then left, unsuccessfully trying not to think about the fact that I’m walking home to King. Sun too, but King is there, and that’s enough to send my spirits plummeting through the ground further.
Finally I walk into the clearing. “Wick! You’re back! Why didn’t you come back with King? He said you were carrying a bit more than him.” Sun gazes at me in concern. I wasn’t gone long at all, I think to myself. Or maybe I was and just didn’t realize it.
Dropping the moss and leaves in my jaws, I respond reassuringly, “I just dropped some of my load, so I was a bit further behind.” My tiny lie echoes through my thoughts longer than I wish it to.
“King could’ve waited for you.”
“It’s okay, it wasn’t really necessary anyway.” I try to push down my feelings of sadness with these words, blinking surely into Sun’s concerned gaze. She nods slowly, murmuring, “I just don’t like you being alone. We should all have each other’s backs at all times. Just… Be careful, alright? When you’re alone?”
I nod quickly. “Of course, Sun. I’ll always be careful.” With this, I pick up my portion of the bedding and take it over to my sleeping place, throwing out the old bit by bit and replacing it with fresh, clean bedding. Sun begins working on hers too, and King, after promising Sun he’d be alright with a few moments by himself, hurries out to get the rest of the bedding.
While we’re working, Sun glances over at me. “No thorns or anything in here. Good job keeping those kinds of things out of this moss. The leaves are even a bit warm. Were they in a patch of sunlight?” Thinking back, I remember that they were. I nod.
“Yeah, they were.” Sun nods and we continue shaping our share of moss and leaves into nice, cushioned beds. Then I glance over at her. Before King came, we both would have been talking our jaws off right now, laughing about pointless things or even throwing moss at each other. But now, after only about two weeks, it’s like… She’s got something else on her mind.
Maybe King is right, maybe I’m not needed here anymore. With this saddening thought, an unnerving shiver runs through me, and I barely manage to hold back a whine. When I look over at a distracted Sun again, about to try making smalltalk that could possibly resemble something similar to our usual conversations, King steps back into the clearing, and I lose my chance. I clamp my jaws shut again.
Sun looks up, and seeing King, she gets a bright expression on her face. “Come on, King!” She jumps up from her bed, which she’s finished, and runs over to help King, barking with excitement. I sit back from my finished job and look at it blankly for awhile. While Sun and King are playing, maybe I can go find a snack for us. So I begin heading out through the now-growing-wider gap - because of trampling down the undergrowth with our steps - and glance back before I leave. Nobody is paying attention to me.
There aren’t many scents near the camp, so I wander out further, hoping I’ll catch something on the slight breeze soon. When my nose does smell something, something delicious, I freeze, rigid with anticipation, and crouch down, trying not to step on the leaves all over the ground. Then I spot a flicker of movement by the root of a tree. Squirrel. Since my brown speckled coat blends in fairly well with the undergrowth and trees, I know if I can stay downwind of the small animal I’ll be able to catch it.
My foot crunches down onto a leaf, and I stop with a paw in midair. The squirrel, holding a nut in its two tiny paws, pauses, twitching an ear. When it looks around and spots me, I know I have to try to run for it. So I leap forward, splaying out my front paws and landing right on top of the squirrel. Before it can chitter out a cry and try to escape for more than a few moments, I lean down quickly, giving a killing bite right at the neck of the creature.
Feeling the warm taste of blood sends a wave of pride rushing through me, and I bury it shallowly in the earth to go find more. Maybe this’ll change their minds about whether they want me here, I think hopefully to myself. I can feed them. I can take care of them and they’ll never have to hunt for themselves again. Then maybe I can stay.
A sound catches my ear. I whip my head to one side. Prey. When I hear the chirp above me, I know it must be a bird, and I step back in disappointment. I can’t catch a bird; not unless it’s on the ground. Then more birds call. But it’s not the normal, peaceful sound that the forest is typically filled with in the evening. It’s almost like… An alarm. Then I hear a thud.
Do I want to run toward it? I’m not sure. Should I run toward it? Probably not. But… I’m just being curious. If I need to run away, I’ll run away. With this thought in my head, I creep forward slowly, and when my head pokes through the undergrowth, a sudden shock of excitement rushes through me. A small bird must’ve fallen from its nest, because now it’s lying helplessly on the ground, it’s small downy feathers shivering in the light breeze flowing through the trees.
I’m about to run forward and kill it, not only to eat as food, but to end its suffering, but then I hear its small cry. A tiny, feeble tweet sounds that is no louder than the crunch of a mouse nibbling on a nut, and immediately I know I can’t kill it. I slacken my muscles in pity. What can I possibly do to help it? A louder cry sounds from above me. Glancing up, I can see a large owl swooping high up in the trees, gradually coming lower and lower, and a snarl escapes my jaws.
It keeps coming lower. Lower, lower and lower. Soon it’s hovering only a few feet above the tiny bird, flapping its wings and getting ready to attack its prey. When I see its claws extend I know it’s about to make its move.
It swoops down. It’s claws stretch out toward the pitiful creature, yet before it can grasp its claws around the tiny lump of feathers, I howl out loud and leap forward, knocking the owl from the sky, surprised by my own boldness. A scream comes from it and I scramble to dig my claws as deep into it’s strange skin and feathers as I possibly can.
Suddenly a heavy wing lifts and swings toward me defensively, and - glad of my watchfulness - I pull my head to one side so that it just can’t reach me. Seeing my moment here, I grit my teeth in readiness, then open my jaws and clamp them down hard on the wing that tried to knock me out. Another scream. This one makes my ears hurt, but I can’t back down now.
Once I realize that this could feed the three of us for multiple meals, I try extra hard, trying not to let flapping wings hit me, yet working to keep an eye on those taloned little legs it has. Small but greedy and powerful. Don’t give up, Wick. This is your chance to prove your grown up self to everybody, to show them that you’re not a little puppy anymore. And to prove that you can stay with them.
So I take my teeth from the damaged wing and strike the owl’s eyes dangerously with my claws. As it cries out continuously, trying to shake me off, and I slash it’s eyes successfully, I know I may be able to win this battle. With long moments of tearing bit by bit, I manage to get a sturdy grip on the owl’s neck with my jaws closed around it, and soon I’m standing beside it, about to slump over with tiredness but so surprised and excited about my huge catch.
I’ve obviously grown, I think to myself, secretly very proud to be seeing the muscles I’ve come to have, and the size of me now. I’m a grown dog now. Once I’ve stared admiringly at the owl for a few long and desperately needed thinking moments, I know I must drag the creature back to camp. The squirrel forgotten, I begin my trek of hauling the owl home, the slog that I know will be tiring.