Norman traipsed along the forest path; he unclasped the dog leash, then tucked into his jacket pocket. Birds trilled in the trees as Duke ran ahead, tongue lolling out and tail wagging. Norman smiled, though a lump formed in his throat as he perceived Duke’s lopsided gait and frequent rests. Duke turned his panting face towards him, and Norman noticed the white hairs that lined Duke’s snout, though his fur still glowed with its natural golden hue. Their friendship neared its end… Norman severed that thought. In the past decade and change, age and illness had caught up to Duke, though he still had the youthful joy of a puppy.
A cool breeze blew and swayed the boughs with a soft rustle of red, orange and yellow leaves. The crisp autumn air nipped at Norman’s cheeks, and the sun shone at intervals through the passing clouds. Casual hikers were scarce on the mountain during the workweek, yet Norman had taken such a glorious day off to spend it with Duke.
Duke stopped; his ears pricked up, attentive.
“What is it, buddy?” Norman called after him.
Duke let out a soft woof and darted up the hillside. Norman ran after him, aware they were veering off the path.
“Duke, stop!” he called, but the dog kept running and Norman only just glimpsed his tail vanishing into a hillside grotto.
Norman entered the cave, calling out Duke’s name, but the dog was too far ahead. Norman paused, listening for Duke’s footsteps. Darkness surrounded him, yet Norman realized he could see well enough in the pitch black. He scanned the cave’s walls, which glittered in hues of gold, silver, copper and bronze, as if the rock contained all the precious metals of the world.
“What is this place?” he whispered.
A far-away bark, and he set off in search of Duke. He followed Duke’s bays and yips down labyrinthine passageways alight with the strange sparkle of the walls. At last Norman caught up with Duke as he sighted the dog passing through a towering arch. Duke waited for him just beyond the threshold.
Norman gaped as he joined his dog inside a cavernous vault. He heard a soft gush in the twinkling darkness; a smooth river with obsidian-like water flowed by his feet.
“Where are we?”
Duke gazed up at him with an unreadable expression.
“You know where you are,” a deep voice spoke beside him, “the question is, should you be here?”
Norman whipped around, searching for the voice’s owner, but saw no one. Afraid, Norman stooped and put his arms around Duke’s neck. The dog licked his cheek.
“Who are you?” Norman asked, but before he received an answer, Duke slipped from his embrace and took off further into the vaulted space.
Norman ran after him, unaware he trod on the black water. With Duke ahead and in sight, Norman reached a tall enameled staircase. Duke was already halfway up and panting; Norman took the steps two by two.
“Wait, Duke!” Norman called, but Duke had reached the landing.
Heaving and wheezing, Norman reached Duke at the top of the stone stairs.
“Hello,” a soft, yet hollow voice spoke.
Norman glanced up and faced a couple seated on onyx thrones atop a pedestal hewn into the colossal walls. Pale and gaunt, the man gazed at him through stony black eyes, while the woman, a pallid blond, smiled at him.
“Where are we?” Norman whimpered.
“Didn’t Charon tell you?” the man asked.
Norman shook his head.
“He ran off,” the deep voice hissed beside him.
“I see,” Hades (it must be Hades) said, “why are you here?”
“I followed my dog,” Norman replied and gazed down at Duke sitting beside him.
“Ah, then it is true, you should not be here,” Persephone said.
“If you show us the way out,” Norman squeaked, “we’ll leave.”
“‘We’ sounds like a crowd,” Hades’s thin lips cracked into a kindhearted snicker, then turned serious, “someone belongs here, or the door would not have opened.”
Norman paled, fighting back tears of fright. He stood and stared, statue-like, as the truth sunk in like an anvil on his chest. Duke yipped and licked Norman’s fingers. The gesture washed away Norman’s fear as heartbreak and sadness overcame him. He kneeled down and cupped Duke’s face in his hands.
“I’m not ready,” he whispered.
“But I am,” Duke’s soft yip seemed to say.
He licked the tears running down Norman’s cheeks.
Norman pressed his face into Duke’s furry neck and sobbed. Man held dog for a long while, until Duke gave Norman’s ear one last lick, slipped from his embrace, and laid down at Hades’s feet.
“Will he suffer?” Norman fought back a sob.
“Not here,” Persephone answered, “out there with you, it’s all that awaits him; a slow and painful decline.”
“I’ve never wanted that,” Norman’s voice broke, “I only want his happiness.”
“That’s all genuine love ever is,” Hades replied, “go now, Norman, we don’t expect you for a very long time.”
Hades snapped his fingers and Norman whisked back through the cave and out to the forest. Norman lay on the soft grass and wept.
Dusk was falling as he walked out of the mountain and reached his car, the empty leash dangling from his hand.