"THE BOOK INSIDE THE STORY" CONTEST
Beneath the Stars
She was assigned to me on that first day, and it was then that I noticed she looked sad. She always looked sad. I’d press my fur against her jeans and I could feel the sadness, the loneliness there, gnawing at her insides as she read. She read aloud to me, and I learned the sound of her voice. Memorized it. Fell in love with it.
We read the same book every day. I heard the people talking once, and they said it was because of what had happened to her. They thought it was because she was different, because of the loneliness. But they were wrong. The people are always getting things wrong.
She was small, hardly twice my size and without so much fur. Mine spiked out in unruly black tufts, but she never seemed to mind.
She would walk into the library, her eyes downcast and long dark hair falling on either side of her face. Trudging at the back of the group, she would stare at the heels of the kids in front of her. The people with them would help each child find their dog and settle in to read. But she never needed help. She would walk toward me, her mouth flickering into a faint smile but her eyes dashing back and forth as if she didn’t want anyone else to see. She was afraid of herself. And it pained me to see.
She would sit down on the floor close beside me. She’d stroke my coarse fur and tell me it was soft, look at my scraggly appearance and tell me I was handsome, kiss my ears and tell me she loved me. Then she’d rest her head on my chest and listen to my heartbeat. I knew she could hear it because she would say it out loud while she listened: ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. Every day, she reminded me that I was alive and every day she gave me a reason to be.
The other children in the library switched dogs every week so that they could get to know all of us, but they didn’t try it with her. I never met any of the others but it didn’t matter. She loved me more than anyone ever had in my life, and I only spent one hour with her five days of the week. Perhaps it was low standards that drove me to satisfaction, but I’d like to think that it was something a bit more honorable.
Because I knew she was coming, I always pulled our book from the shelf early so that it would be ready for her. But the people thought it had been left out and would take it right from beneath my nose to put it back. Eventually I would have to hold it in my mouth to save it from being taken away. The people are always getting things wrong.
She always knew who got the book. She didn’t need to look at the teeth marks that the people missed, she just knew.
“Did you get our book, boy?” she’d whisper, smiling at me. She knew I had, I never forgot. I’d nose it toward her anyway and she’d giggle.
Lying side by side on our stomachs, we were equals. She’d begin to read and I’d rest my head on her forearm, watching her hands turn the worn pages.
“Nobody loved her.”
That was her favorite line. Or the one she feared the most.
I don’t know how many times it was in the book but she seemed to add it in more than the author had thought was necessary. I felt her arm move as she traced the illustration on the page while reading the line again and again. I didn’t like to look at that page so I’d turn toward her face. But there was little consolation there.
Every once in awhile, a person would come to check on us in our corner and they were always greeted by the threatening snap of the book being slammed shut. She and I would look up at the person, equally silent, equally patient as we waited for them to go away.
It was after we’d sent yet another person creaking away across the old floorboards that she turned to me and whispered, “She doesn’t love me. She says she does, but she doesn’t.”
I wriggled around and licked her on the nose. She giggled. She understood.
But it was the day after that when she didn’t come. I waited in our corner with the book in my mouth. The group of kids came in, the regular assortment of people with them. They were loud like usual, but they were all loud. She was not with them. I waited.
The people were talking. I could hear them behind the desk, their voices slightly high pitched. I ignored the sounds of the phone being used and the anxious murmurs. They didn’t matter to me. I was waiting.
No one came to our corner. Finally, I stood up, my shaggy legs quivering slightly. I didn’t want to leave our spot in case she came and I missed her. I had to be there for her. But even if she didn’t come, I would still have to be there, wherever that was.
I walked into the main foyer of the library, our book clutched tightly between my jaws. A trail of saliva ran down the plastic covering, its zigzag pattern matching the path of my stomach as it flopped through my insides.
The desk loomed above me. I placed the book safely on the carpet between my paws and took the opportunity to moisten my nose with a couple of hasty licks. I glanced around, panting nervously.
A person came around the corner, running his fingers through his hair. He spotted me.
“Oh,” he said, sounding slightly dazed. “Come here, boy.” He reached a hand out toward me, and I took a step back. I wasn’t ready to go back yet. I hadn’t seen her.
He crept toward me and I knew I only had moments to make my decision. Sure, my job was minimum wage - but at least I had one. I had few genuine complaints I could make about it other than the somewhat depressing housing arrangements. My family didn’t live with me. My family was a girl I saw for one hour five days of the week.
The book was back in my mouth as I lunged for the open door, my claws digging into the carpet. I slid through someone’s outstretched legs and I was greeted by a blast of cold air.
My nails scratched on the pavement as I flew down the sidewalk. I could hear the clomping of boots on solid ground behind me, a sound which soon ceased, and yelling that melted into labored breaths. I was gone.
It had been so long since I had run. I stretched my legs and let my tail fly like a flag at the stern. My eyes closed for a moment and I let the evening air wash over me, chilling my lungs and freezing my anxiety. I would find her.
I knew where she was. The people would have gotten it wrong, as they so often do.
I slowed, but still maintained a brisk trot. The ground became dirt and springy grass as I passed beneath a stand of trees. I had left the street behind but could still see lights peaking through the small strip of forest that split the houses from the river.
The bank felt cool against my paws as I began to make my way along it. My nostrils flared as I searched for her scent, but the sound of the softly moving water unnerved me. I couldn’t concentrate with the terrifying thought just brushing the tips of my ears, the horrible image of a beckoning river and a little girl who I only saw for one hour five days of the week.
I shook my fur and quickened my pace. I clenched the book even tighter between my teeth. Darkness was falling and I could see the first stars beginning to shine.
Then I smelled her. It was just a bit of a whiff on the breeze, really, but I knew it was her. As soon as I made out her dark shape outlined against the riverbank, I bounded forward.
She was lying on her back on the tough strands of grass, her head resting on her upturned folded arms. She was smiling, almost grinning, in a way I’d only ever seen her do on special occasions. I suppose this qualified as one. She rolled her head toward me as if it was no surprise that I was there. She’d known too.
“You remembered,” her eyes twinkled in the dying light. I placed the book on her stomach and she pulled her hands from beneath her head and clutched it between her fingers. She looked back up at the sky. “They lay on the riverbank together, laughing and counting stars. They never did reach a million, but it didn’t matter. They had each other. They didn’t need anything else but to stay together forever and sleep beneath the stars.” She hadn’t opened the book but I’d recognize the line anywhere. After all, I had heard it five times a week, every week.
We sat in silence for a moment. She watched the stars with rapture and I watched the faint cloud that hung above her mouth every time she let out a breath. I sneezed and she turned back to me. She reached out a hand and I pushed my muzzle into it. The fingers were cold and I wiggled toward her. She swept her arm around me and I pressed myself closer to her.
I rested my head on her shoulder and blew warm air on her cheek while she told me about the stars. To her, they were friends, ones that would listen and never leave. They each had personality and a story. Perhaps she’d made them up or maybe she just knew. It didn’t matter. I could have listened to her for hours.
She quieted and I could hear her counting under her breath. I had never learned to count because the numbers weren’t in our book. But I listened.
Her arm moved beneath my chin as she pointed at each one in turn. Eventually the movement stopped and she dropped her hand down to my back once more. She stroked my scraggly fur.
“I didn’t reach a million,” she told me. “But it doesn’t matter. Do you know why?”
She rolled over so we were nose to nose. Our book slid from her stomach and was pressed between us while soft clouds of breath hit my muzzle with little bursts of steam.
I licked her chilled nose and she wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged me. “Because I love you.” She held me for a long time.
Then we slept beneath the stars.
Phoebe Hartvigsen is sixteen years old and in her junior year of high school. She enjoys writing, reading, and playing volleyball, basketball, and softball when not completely consumed by homework.