The Black Dog

"I know who you are," she said to the dog.

It had attached itself to her four blocks back; a shaggy black wolfhound with no collar and impeccable manners, taking its place beside her like a silent sentry or an old friend, keeping pace and keeping company without a single hint of aggression or ill will. It was sedate, and after waiting through three red lights with the dog standing tall at her hip she decided that it wasn't such a bad thing. She looked down as it trotted with its distinctive gait, passing through the groups of pedestrians politely until they reached the park and the crowd thinned.

"We might as well get acquainted, you know, learn each other's names and stuff like that." She sat on an abandoned bench in the shade of an oak. The park around her was empty as far as she was concerned; only a few elderly joggers bouncing and scuffling down the path with headphones wrapped around their heads or tucked down the front of their too tight t-shirts. Typical exercise clothes, she had started to notice, for the elderly; tight short shorts and a shirt that showed off the bulge of belly that only came from old age, advertising in fading letters a deli or trendy gym. She ignored them. They wouldn't overhear her talking to the dog and even if they did, at their age and with all of their own eccentricities could they really criticize her?

The dog sat dutifully at her side, still and straight and regal, its gaze fixed forward, unmoving, while she scanned the park. Obedient, probably trained, and she wondered for a moment who let such an animal wander freely. To a normal passerby, used to dogs that fit in handbags and the occasional enthusiastic retriever, the black dog standing nearly chest high on her short frame must have seemed like a monster.

"Anyway, like I was saying. We need to get to know each other." The dog looked up and chuffed, once, softly, to acknowledge her. "I'm Bella. Not short for anything, just Bella. And you…" She trailed off and tilted her head, looking up into the branches and sky beyond them. What was this dog supposed to be called? "Your name is Wulfric."

Tentatively she laid a hand on his head. He had turned to face her as she spoke and now looked back down the path.

"I like it, so I hope you do too." She scratched lightly behind Wulfric's ears and tested the wiry hair between her fingertips. "I've never lived with a dog before, but you and I, we're friends now, and if my boyfriend doesn't like you then tough shit for him."

Bella sat in thought and her voice slowed. "It's probably better this way. Right now I feel like I can live with you. Well…you know what I mean. Not live, but that's splitting hairs."

Wulfric stood suddenly and made Bella jump, her hand coming off of his head until she calmed herself with a laugh of embarrassment. Dogs moved without any reason sometimes, even the most tame and proper of them all, she reminded herself.

"So you agree. I'm glad we can get along - because no pun intended - I knew you were going to hound me from the moment I saw you coming."

Bella rose and looked down to meet Wulfric's fixed gaze as he too, sensing they were going to leave, shuffled in place. "And I'm not intimidated by you. I've outgrown that in the last few years." Softly she stroked down his back, feeling the rise of his spine beneath his coat and letting her fingers dawdle on it until she reached his hindquarters. She gave them a thump, encouragement, and started to walk away. Wulfric, she knew, would follow.

"So this doesn't bother you at all," Devin asked.

Bella looked up at him inquisitively. She had only just finished telling her story about Wulfric, of their trip to the pet store around the corner to find him a proper collar that was half intended to keep anyone else from picking him up as a stray (not that any reasonable person would) and half as a formality, and now her boyfriend seemed troubled. His reaction struck her; normally he was supportive though occasionally amused by her endeavors and quirks, but his eyes were troubled by her simple story.

"Does what not bother me?" she asked, and folded her legs beneath her.

"Picking up a stray dog and letting him follow you everywhere. You did say you brought him with you today, didn't you?"

Bella frowned. Devin sounded almost accusing. Plenty of people brought their dogs with them wherever they went. Hell, she'd seen a woman with a twitchy terrier tucked under her arm in a coffee shop just that morning. Bringing him on a quick visit to her boyfriend and leaving him outside so as not to offend his pet-free abode didn't seem the slightest bit curious to her. "Wulfric? Of course I brought him with me. I have him tied to a signpost outside." She hesitated. Something about Devin's behavior, the frown, the way he uncrossed his legs and slumped on the cushions, put Bella on the defense. "Why? What's wrong with bringing him? He's my dog, and he likes to come with me."

Devin seemed to search for words, his face twisted with disapproval. "Well, I just mean that most people wouldn't take home a dog like that. They would turn it in to the shelter or stay away from it. I mean, think about rabies. And fleas. Most people would worry about that."

"He's not foaming at the mouth or anything. He's the most polite dog I've ever seen. I mean have you seen how nasty a little Chihuahua can be?"

"Well didn't you say that this was a rare dog breed?"

Bella's brow wrinkled. "Not rare rare, but uncommon. He's an Irish Wolfhound. I looked it up on Wikipedia to make sure."

Devin shook his head and smiled a small condescending smile. He probably wasn't even aware he was doing it but seeing it, the way his eyes crinkled at the corners and the edges of his lips turned up, made a tiny flare of annoyance flicker in Bella's chest. "So don't you think he might belong to someone? I'm sure they want him back."

"He had no collar or anything, so I doubt he belongs to anyone. Besides, we've connected." She rubbed her hand over her face and peeked through her fingers to look at the clock. "Is it really such a big deal? I got a dog, that's it."

His smile wavered. "Babe, have you been feeling all right lately? Have been doing, you, know, risky things lately?"

Bella rolled her neck and took a deep breath. "You mean like sky diving, riding on untested roller coasters? I'm not taking risks. Wulfric's gentle. In fact he's probably sitting out there staring at traffic just the way I left him. You don't have to worry about me."

"It's just something to keep in mind. It's very lucky that the dog-"

"Wulfric," Bella interrupted.

Devin looked at her with measured patience. "Wulfric. You were very lucky that he was gentle, but you also could have put yourself in danger if he turned out to be mean-spirited. And small risks can lead to bigger ones."

Bella, trying not to lash out at Devin's scolding tone, nodded in mock understanding. "You're absolutely right. I guess I got so excited about getting a dog that I didn't even think that it could be dangerous. But I promise he's not. In fact he's probably missing me right now. I think I'll take him for a nice walk later. Exercise is good, right?"

"I think so. Come on, you know how much I work out."

"Great." She glanced at the clock again. She'd left Wulfric alone outside long enough. It had been an impromptu visit to Devin anyway, not a scheduled date, so leaving suddenly and without much explanation shouldn't, reasonably, upset him. "All right, I should go. I need to make dinner and take care of some things at home."

Predictably, Devin didn't put up an argument, simply nodded and heaved himself from the couch as she stood. "You got it. You'll call tonight before bed?"

She hoped that by then Devin would have reconsidered Wulfric, and they could get through their nightly conversation without strife or conflict. "Of course." She kissed him, maybe more chastely and hesitantly than normally, but if Devin noticed, gave any sign that he was disturbed by the sudden lack of affection, Bella didn't see it.

Bella rushed through the door and on to the street. As she'd predicted Wulfric remained where he had been left, stone still except for the turn of his head as he licked at his chops as if to acknowledge her return. He always acknowledged her, welcomed her back with a chuff or sudden movement, and she in return placed a steady hand upon his head.

"Don't be offended, Wulfric. He doesn't understand." Her eyes rolled back to look up at the sky, trying to avoid the irritation that lingered. Weird, she thought, how sometimes a visit with Devin seemed to evoke the exact opposite emotion of what she should feel. "But whatever. He doesn't really need to understand, right? He wouldn't believe me even if I told him," she said to Wulfric.

Wulfric stood, shifting on the pads of his feet impatiently until Bella un-looped the leash from the signpost and twisted it around her hand.

"Glad we agree. I promised him I would take you for a walk. Good exercise, so let's get going."

"I'm not ready for this to happen. I'm too young. I still have too much to do with my life."

Wulfric, tree branch in his mouth, gripped by long teeth, stared at her silently, bewildered by the statement. Bella stared back, reached out a hand to accept the branch, and sighed. Wulfric rumbled with a deep growl, his lip rising the slightest bit, and Bella sighed again. She gripped the end of the branch and tried to wrestle it away. Wulfric refused to relent.

"Don't get pissy. What do you want me to say?" She yanked on the branch and finally succeeded in pulling it away. For six weeks Wulfric had been the perfect dog, obeying her every command to sit, stay, wait for the okay before indulging in his dinner, and even consenting to be enrolled in a basic rally obedience course. Watching him weave through cones, stand stock-still and ignore a treat held just out of reach of his mouth gave her a perverse feeling of joy, a feeling of satisfaction at his expense. He was the perfect dog, a dog any loving family would have killed to have. She raised the branch high above her head and waved it, trying to catch Wulfric's attention and persuade him to return to their game. It was going to rain soon; she could smell it on the air, a scent she had always compared to the scent of something burning in the distance, and with the change in the weather her mood had taken on an ominous weight.

"You probably don't hear that a lot, do you? But then again you usually spend very little time with people, right? You're a superstition in how many parts of the world, and people probably just run away from you wherever you go. Not me. I'm just sitting here and waiting for…you know…" She lowered the branch to her lap. Wulfric didn't seem keen on retrieving the stick anymore, at least not until they reached a mutual understanding. This was, after all, their first quarrel. "I'm not saying its bad either way; I'm just making a point. We can't even talk anymore, can we?"

The first drop of rain struck her above her nose and dried up in the heat. Wulfric's tail twitched.

"Let's forget I even said anything. You did a good job in rally yesterday. I could probably enter you in a competition sometime soon. Would you like that?"

Wulfric said nothing.

"I mean, did you see that whippet? She was eating grass. Pretty dog, definitely smart, but I guess some dogs are just weird like that."

Wulfric said nothing.

"We really can't have a conversation anymore." She slid down on the bench and knocked her head against the wooden slats. "I guess I'm being stubborn or something. Maybe I lied when I said I wasn't intimidated by you." She stood and tossed the stick towards a nearby tree, not bothering to attach Wulfric to his leash as she started back to her apartment. What was the point of leading him when he was only going to follow at her heels, insistently, like an extended part of her body? She had stopped caring, for the moment at least, about leash laws. What was the worst the police could do anyway? Issue a fine? She didn't care.

No one paid any attention as she walked back, hoping the rain would hold off and spare her the wet dog smell that she doubted even Wulfric could avoid. Dogs, no matter what kind, were still dogs.

"I don't understand why it has to be me!"

She said it with force. It was a demand now, not a request, but she knew Wulfric would never obey. He sat in the passenger seat, buckled in with the belt across his deep chest, looped under his front paws to allow him a range of movement but save him from the destructive force of a potential crash. She didn't know why she did it. Was it necessary?

Wulfric was watching her with eyes that were too intelligent.

"It's not fair you know. There are people out there, bad people that are going to live into their nineties," her voice wavered, and she fought to keep watching the road, the short stretches of pavement illuminated by her headlights. "Hell, with the way health care is going, they may even live longer than that. I'm a good person right?"

She glanced over at Wulfric. He was looking out the windshield now as if ignoring her. She had been holding her thoughts in about it for weeks, telling herself that it didn't matter, that it really didn't bother her, but that night something had broken.

"I think I am. I mean, I don't cheat or steal or hurt anyone, and that's a lot more than can be said about a lot of people, so why are you sitting in my car right now instead of someone else's?"

Wulfric didn't answer, simply turned his head away, uninterested, and looked out the passenger side window.

"Can you at least tell me how," she asked, and flexed her hands against the wheel. Maybe it was better not to know, but that wouldn't stop her from asking. That question, like everything else, needed to be asked. "Is it going to be from illness? Am I going to catch a bad cold or something?"

She looked over at Wulfric. The silence her every statement elicited was unnerving; she felt as though she were riding with a friend she'd recently argued with. Frustrated, she looked back at the road.

"Okay, so what then?" A thought occurred to her and she hesitated, knowing that more than any other, this was a question she didn't want to know the answer to. "Am I going to be the one that does it?"

From the corner of her eye Bella saw Wulfric's head turn to face her. He was watching her now, his mouth opening to let his tongue hang out as he panted. To Bella's eyes it looked like he was smiling, as though confirming something she had said. Her hands shivered on the wheel as she slowed, taking the car around a sharp turn.

"If that's the case, than I can prevent it. What would you do then? It would be my choice."

Wulfric licked his chops, and as the sound of his tongue echoed through the car, and Bella could almost have thought that she heard a tone of amusement, somehow, in the noise. She was missing something.

"What's so funny?"

Wulfric sneezed and looked back out the window, his shoulders shaking as he panted with soft, shallow breaths. He seemed like just another dog now, a dog enjoying a night's drive and the scenery whisking by the car. She opened the window a crack and let him stick his nose outside.

"Nothing about this is really funny. Maybe it is for you, but it's not funny for me. But it doesn't really matter now does it? If I'm going to be the one to cause it, then I can prevent it from happening. It'll be easy. So, sorry, Wulfric, but you might be stuck with me for a while longer."

Silence. The sound of Wulfric's panting had stopped; now the only sound was the low ticking of pavement beneath her tires and the soft whistling of wind coming through the open window. The car didn't just seem quieter; it seemed stiller, more abandoned. Bella frowned. Something didn't seem right.

"Wulfric?"

She looked over. He barked, loud, suddenly in a way she had never heard or expected. His lips pulled back over his teeth and for the first time she felt the fear that everything Devin had worried about had come true. Wulfric was vicious, was dangerous, and she had welcomed him into her life.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Haunted, she looked back towards the road through the windshield, just before the truck hit them.