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CHAPTER 17 – Satan

And then the magnitude of what had just occurred struck her. In awe, she sank to the floor. Compared to today, the mild interaction a month earlier, when a few observations of the black dog in the creek bed tunnel dribbled out to her and saved her life, was little more than a nod in passing. In that event, she had picked up bits and pieces of what the animal saw and sensed in real time. Today, besides intercepting the current, deep emotions flowing from this animal and then his reactions to the possibility of eating, which she had totally misinterpreted, she had received clear, if jumbled, images of past events, images from his memories as well as the range of feelings he experienced during those times. Although what she had picked up was not words, it was clear enough for her to assign words to them for her own, better understanding. She and the dog had not conversed, but it was the next thing to it. Maybe Doctor Doolittle wasn’t a fantasy, after all, but a documentary.

Matti was pretty sure, now, that the huge dog was not going to attack her. But, even so, when those solemn, amber colored orbs slowly closed in what she now understood was insurmountable grief, she climbed back to her feet on still-wobbly legs and edged out the door. She started to close it behind her, but then decided to leave it ajar. Even if he was content to lie beside his dead mistress and die a lingering death, she felt he should at least have the option to leave if he wished.

On her way back downstairs, she reached down for handfuls of blood-matted hair and dragged the dead dogs on the landing and stairway out through the front door and over the railing at the end of the porch opposite the wheelchair ramp. Then she went through the rest of the house, gathered up all the dead dogs, and hauled them out to the same disposal.

As she was completing her search through the house for any other food or useful items, she came across a large, half full bag of kibbled dog food inside a metal cabinet on the enclosed back porch. Nearby, also, were two large pet dishes with “Eat” on one and “Drink” on the other. She brought both dishes and the kibble into the kitchen, and then secured the back door with a chair from the dining room table braced beneath the doorknob. After using a second dining chair on the front door, she made a tour of all the downstairs windows to be certain they were secure, or as much as glass could be made so.

When she was satisfied that the house was hers and reasonably safe, she stood at the bottom of the stairs and thought of the animal upstairs lying on the floor of the front bedroom. It had been there for a couple of days, probably, with no food. It had the bathtub of water, but it may not have even gone to that in its overwhelming grief. She had heard of animals being so devoted to its person that when the master or mistress dies, the heartbroken animal just lies down and dies, too.

Matti filled “Eat” with kibble and carried it and the other dish upstairs. She filled “Drink” in the landing bathroom and set both dishes just inside the door to the bedroom.

When she peeked around the corner toward the window and the fallen curtain beside the empty wheelchair, she could see the dog’s muzzle protruding; it had crawled and scooted and maneuvered back to where it felt safe, or maybe just closer to the absent occupant of the chair. The closed lids over its eyes didn’t rise or otherwise acknowledge her presence, but she was sure it must have heard her. She hadn’t made any attempt to creep up the stairs or conceal her approach to the room.

Before she backed out of the room, she reached over and pulled the bathroom door closed. With a last look at the room’s sole, living occupant, she said softly, “We’ll just keep it cleaner this way. You know – no doggie slobber.”

That evening, she fixed a celebratory dinner of half of a can each of corned beef and peas along with some au gratin potatoes, heated over a wood fire she built in the sink. As with the water pipes, the gas pipes had long since emptied.

Matti spent the next couple of days tidying up and organizing whatever she managed to find in her explorations of the house. She discovered that a previous occupant, probably the dead girl’s mother, was about her size. The closet and the drawers in the master bedroom were well supplied with clothing she could wear: good, rugged denim jeans, tough, twill shirts, and even – glory-be – underwear.

But the thing that caught her eyes and thrilled her most was a pair of solid, well made, lace up hiking shoes. After she put them on with a wonderfully soft pair of heavy socks, she marched around the house just enjoying the feel of them on her poor, abused feet. The sneakers she had been wearing at the time of the attacks were snagged and ripped from crawling through wrecked buildings in search of survival fare. She was leery of wearing them in future scavenging after a long nail had pierced the sole with ease, leaving a welt on the side of her foot where the thing had scraped upon penetrating the shoe. Just half an inch to the side and it would have gone through her foot. But her new shoes had firm, heavy knobbed soles of hard rubber – maybe not nail-proof, but at least repellant.

Such a treasure. I could have had a pair of these, before. I could have had two or three pairs, I bet, if I had really wanted them. And now, I might have to kill just to keep these. And I will, too! Ain’t nobody gonna take ’em! “I love ’m, I love ’em!” And she danced a little soft-shoe.

Matti was certain it was mainly the smell of the putrefying bodies of the dogs just off the end of the front porch that prevented the air of the house from freshening better, so she decided it was time to further remove them. She dragged them, the smaller ones two at a time, over to the burned hulk of a house across the street and tossed them into the ashes.

Then, while she was in the mood to do it, she went into the back yard, and, with a shovel she found in a shed against the back fence, she dug beneath the gracefully draping branches of the huge weeping willow. After a good deal of sweating and a couple of blisters, she was satisfied it would do.

Upstairs, she approached the front bedroom with caution, still leery about what the dog might take in his mind to do. As big as he was, she had no doubts about her inability to fend off an attack. But, when she peeked around the corner, he was still in his spot beside the wheelchair. Most of the water in his dish and all the food was gone. With slow, deliberate movements, she picked up the water dish and refilled it from the bathtub in the adjoining bathroom and placed it back in the same spot next to the food dish. She’d refill it afterwards. She sat on the floor with her back against the doorframe and returned his patient gaze.

After several long moments during which she reaffirmed her determination, she said in a soft, soothing tone, “And what kind of a day have you had today? Hmm?”

She considered trying a mind-to-mind connection, but she didn’t want to subject herself to that turmoil again. Besides, she wasn’t sure just how to go about it, or what his reaction might be.

“I know; you’re still hurtin’ pretty bad, aren’t you? And I’m sure not going to tell you to just get over it and get on with your life. That just isn’t gonna happen, is it? I know pretty much how you’re feeling, you know. I’ve lost … I’ve lost a couple of people I loved, too.”

When the dog’s eyelids slowly lowered, Matti knew he was still listening to her voice, even if he may not understand her words. She continued to talk to him, telling him of her family, her friends.

She rested her chin in the notch between her knees that she had drawn up and held in place with her arms wrapped around them. As she reminisced about her life, her eyes occasionally closed tear-moistened lids when memories stirred too vividly.

“...so, I was what you might call between boyfriends. After four-hands-Alex, I figured I could do without men for the next forty years or so.”

She laid her head over onto her right shoulder, and, with a half smile turning up one corner of her mouth, she went on, “Except Woody kept turning up. He was always there, but never really pushed, you know? I guess we just became friends instead of … something else. But, friendships can be more than friendships. Sometimes. If you aren’t careful. Dammit – why couldn’t we have had more time? I never knew Woody felt that way about me. I never knew I felt that way about him. Dammit!”

She swiped her forearm across both eyes a couple of times and gripped her legs again.

“And, not Daddy. Daddy was … special. He could be hard, all right. Oh, boy, could he. But it was only ’cause he had such firm convictions about what was right and wrong, and what his little girl could get away with and what she couldn’t. Most times, we got on pretty good. … Yeah, pretty good. I knew if I needed something, or if I really, really wanted something – you know, like it was really important to me – and if it was at all within reach, he’d let me have it. Even if he had to do without, himself. Yeah, he was a pretty good dad, all things considered … pretty good. For both of us.

“And Jamal was a pretty good brother, too, as little brothers go. He was fourteen, you know. That’s about the worst age possible for a little brother. Somehow, he would find out everything I did, or wanted to do, or planned to do, or thought about doing. And, of course, at fourteen, he knew everything about everything. He could be such a pain. Not all the time, you understand. Just sometimes … once in a while. But Momma was pretty good at keeping him out of my hair. She had a knack for knowing when he was starting to really get to me, and she’d just kind of divert him onto something else. She was so good at it, most times he didn’t even realize he’d been had. ’Course, he wasn’t really all that bad. I mean, I could be pretty petty, myself, at times. He was only acting like what he was, you know: a fourteen-year old, fairly intelligent, pretty observant little brother to a sixteen-year old big sister who could be really bitchy at times.”

Matti’s head rolled forward so that her eyes and cheeks could wipe dry on the fabric of her pants stretched across her knees. She raised her head, worked a smile back onto her mouth and, as much as she could manage, into her eyes, and then said, “Well, hey there, big guy, what say we get this place cleaned up a bit. You know, just get rid of a couple of things. Things we really don’t need layin’ around up here, anymore.”

She eased up to her feet and took a step toward the bed. The dog’s eyes opened, and he watched her take another step, but he made no move to rise.

“I know you need to feel close to her for awhile. And you can, too. I mean … that chair is part of her, isn’t it? And this room you must have shared with her has to be full of her. But her body … well, it’s just that – a body, an empty shell.”

Matti reached the bed and, with slow, deliberate moves, pulled the flowered comforter from it.

“She’s really not in it anymore, you know? …You do know, don’t you? That’s why you’re lying over there instead of over here next to her. You know this is just something she used for a while, something that can be discarded now. Right?”

The huge dog’s attention stayed riveted on Matti as she leaned over the ravaged corpse and gently began to wrap it in the comforter. His massive head lifted off the floor a few inches to better watch her actions, but he still didn’t rise.

With the bundle in her arms, Matti started back toward the door. If anything was going to happen, it would be in the next moment or so.

“You’ll like the spot I picked.” Her voice wafted across the stifling, rancid air of the room like thistledown on a sweet, summertime breeze. “You know that big tree out back? Well, she’ll lie beneath its branches, in the shade in the heat of summer and sheltered from the cold and the wind and rain in the winter. I know she liked that old tree. That’s the one there in the pictures, isn’t it? She sure looked happy there. I’m sure her spirit will like to, you know, kind of just hang around it for a while … maybe become part of it in years to come.

“And, you know, spirits can move back and forth in time, too. Bet you didn’t know that. So, she can go back to that day when you and she were out there together and just, well … hang out. She wasn’t around all that long to have had a lot of good memories, but I’ll bet that was one of them. I’ll bet if you were to think real hard, you could remember back on that day there was a whisper of something floating about, something as soft as the touch of a rainbow on a green hillside. Or maybe a leaf fell from the tree and landed on you for just a moment, and when it slid off it almost felt like the touch of a finger. Remember anything like that? It could have been her, you know.”

By the time Matti made it back to the door, she noticed his muzzle was back on the floor and his eyes were closed again. He hadn’t made any move at all to attack her, and she was confident, now, that he wouldn’t.

“Why don’t you come on down with me and we’ll lay her to rest together. Come on. Come on, boy.”

The slight change in the tone of her voice to encourage him to follow her brought his head up again and his large, amber eyes gazed into hers. She could almost read his troubled mind, the indecision, the struggle to break out of the lethargy that had so tightly clenched his will. He almost rose to his feet; there was a small bit of squirming, but the want just wasn’t strong enough. He laid his head back down between his paws and closed his eyes again.

“Well, that’s okay, too. If you’d rather stay here with her things, if that’s what’ll make you feel better right now, then just do that.”

Matti marveled at the insignificant weight of the girl’s body. Why, you probably don’t weigh more than the comforter, itself. She thought about what those few morsels of food had cost the members of the dog pack. I wonder if they still thought it was worth it when your buddy got hold of ’em.

In the back yard, she laid the wrapped remains in the hole that she had only managed to dig down about three feet before a large root from the tree stopped her. She stood at the foot of the grave and gazed down at the small size of the body in its shroud of flowered fabric and thought about how difficult life can be for some. And look how others who seem to just sail through life while hardly ever encountering a real problem complain that fate is against them when things don’t go just right.

When she realized she didn’t even have anything to mark the grave, to identify who was in it, she returned upstairs to see what she could find. After only a few minutes of searching through the chest and dresser, she found it. A certificate from the American Kennel Club listed Katherine Wells as primary owner, with Robert and Amanda Wells as secondary owners, of a male Old English mastiff named Nemesis of Satan. It showed an impressive pedigree with numerous champions and grand champions in the few generations listed.

Matti looked over at the dog lying on the floor with his eyes closed. “Nemesis?” she said lightly.

The dog made no move to acknowledge his name.

She pondered for a moment, then, “Satan?”

He opened his eyes and raised his head, turning it to face Matti. He seemed to be waiting to see if she was going to speak again.

“I’ll bet she couldn’t say Nemesis when they got you, could she? But she could say Satan, so that’s what stuck. Glad to know you, Satan. My name is Matti – not that you’re likely to use it. You wanta come on downstairs, now? I’m about ready to finish up out back. It’d be okay if you’d like to come out there with me. Come on, Satan. Come on, boy.”

With the AKC certificate and the two photos of Katherine and Satan, Matti went back down. Satan followed at a distance. She used another wheelchair ramp from the back porch down to the lawn, but the dog sat on the porch and watched.

She decided the certificate was too fragile to use as a grave marker. And, anyway, she could put it to better use. She kneeled beside the grave and slid it inside the comforter where tiny hands lay folded together.

“There you are, Kathy Wells. I thought you might like to take this with you. You know, just to have something from your life to hang on to. Satan’s gonna keep a piece of your spirit, if you don’t mind. Nobody can see it or feel it, but that way they can’t take it from him, either. It’s just a tiny bit that’s stuck onto all his memories of you, and I’m sure he’ll take real good care of it. Then when it’s his time, maybe he can use it to help find you again…. It’s a thought, anyway.”

She stood up, hefted the shovel again, and began returning the dirt to the hole. When she had mounded it nice and evenly, she pressed the bases of the twin framed photographs into the dirt as a head stone. Stepping back to assess her work, she allowed a small smile of satisfaction to soften the frown of sorrow she had worn since she had spoken her words of farewell to the small girl she had never known in life.

Smoke filtered sunlight streamed through leaves fluttering on loaded branches. It settled across the new grave in a mottled pattern of warm patches of light bordered by soft shadows, each gently washing across the bare dirt in caressing waves. As a backdrop, the weathered, back fence behind the tree was just visible through a veil of honeysuckle, and whatever was beyond the fence was blocked by a mass of untrimmed honeysuckle growth overtopping of the fence.

She slowly backed away, into the full sunlight of mid-day again, then turned, laid the shovel handle across her shoulder and started back toward the house. But she returned to the house by going around the side to the front door rather than trying to squeeze past Satan’s mass just outside the back door; she still wasn’t real keen on getting within snapping distance of the immense dog. Just before rounding the corner, she glanced back as movement caught the corner of her eye.

Satan had risen and slowly made his way down the ramp and out to the dancing shadows near the base of the huge tree.

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