Jem Thompson’s childhood best friend was Bruise, a mongrel dog mixed with stray, with a gray-black patch over his eye. Bruise died when Jem was a teen, and he missed his friend so much he never kept another pet again. There could be no other like Bruise.
Marriage, kids, grandkids, widowerhood.
Every day, Jem Thompson would walk in the park that faced his house and sit on the bench by the mermaid fountain at its eastern corner. There he would watch the comings and goings of his neighbors, and revel in the games they played with their dogs.
Late in the afternoon on a cloudy day, Jem Thompson sat at his bench longer than usual; fluffy white clouds had kept the beaming sun at bay and a cool breeze blew. He laid his head back on the hard wooden seat and took a brief nap. A cold wetness surprised Jem Thompson and he awoke to find Bruise’s soulful eyes gazing at him as the dog licked Jem’s fingers.
“Bruise?” Jem Thompson muttered in disbelief.
The dog yipped and Jem Thompson knew was Bruise, not another dog that looked like him. Bruise nuzzled his hand and then nudged Jem Thompson, now an old man, to follow him. The dog was relentless, and, with a snap of bones and a creak of the old knee, Jem Thompson stood, his hip jutting out sideways. Bruise walked a few paces, then returned to coax his old friend. With his slow and crooked gait, Jem Thompson followed his long-gone dog. It never occurred to him to fear the animal; this was Bruise, after all.
Bruise led him across the street and down a narrow alley, away from the square with the park at its center he’d known so well for forty-odd years. He walked past houses he hadn’t seen in decades, since Madge’s death and the creaky knee had forced him into an almost sedentary life. He came to a brick-red townhouse that stood between two modern bungalows. Jem Thompson recalled it had been part of a row of townhouses; now it was the last one standing. The plain, modern eyesores had replaced the others.
Jem sighed, winded and tired; Bruise trotted to the door. He barked and scratched it. The sun was low in the sky and Jem, unaware of how far he’d walked, stood like a fool before the house.
Bruise returned to his side and snapped at Jem’s hand, the way he’d always done when he’d wanted something from him. Jem sighed, and, shaking his head, tottered up the front path. He stood at the door, uneasy. With a deep breath, he rang the bell. An old woman opened; they stared at one another for a moment, then Jem’s eyes went from dull to shining with recognition.
“Fanny?” He said, surprised, “Fanny Markowitz?”
A slow smile spread over the woman’s face, “Jem Thompson, well I’ll be damned! It’s been, what, sixty years?”
Jem smiled at his old friend and was about to reply when a loud bang rattled the house.
“What the…?” Fanny exclaimed and turned to enter when Jem pulled her back.
“I smell gas!” he yelled.
He took Fanny’s withered hand and let her to the street. Tongues of fire licked the kitchen curtains. Smoke billowed from the upstairs window-frames and, in the next instant, flames erupted from the shattered glass.
“Serena!” Fanny yelled.
“Is someone else inside the house?” Jem asked in alarm.
“Serena, my cat!” Fanny screamed, “I need to get her!”
She was about to lunge into the flames when they distinguished the silhouette of a dog in the gaping doorway. It carried something in its muzzle.
Away from the burning house, the dog set the dangling bundle on the ground; it jerked and moved and ran to Fanny. Fanny cradled the calico cat in her arms. Jem turned to pet the dog, but Bruise had disappeared.
Fanny whispered beside him, “That was Bruise, wasn’t it?”
Jem nodded and moved his lips, but wailing sirens drowned out his answer.