by Chaka Wolf
Text ©2006 Chaka Wolf; illustration ©2006 Cubist
When Barstow moved back to his home town, it was not because he had such fond memories of the place. He had none. His choice was based on the fact that Soperton had been the only home hed known before Atlanta. Now, jogging through the towns once-familiar streets, his thoughts returned to those long-ago days.
Barstow first arrived in Soperton as a puppy. He had been purchased as a genetically engineered pet for a rich mans granddaughter. His kind had been expected to have a rudimentary intelligence, but the California lab that had created him had done their job far too well, and Barstow and his littermates had developed human-equivalent cognitive skills in their first few years. Legal problems followed. Ownership of one sentient being by another was deemed illegal by the courts. The enhanced canids, to their everlasting shock, had been granted citizenship and introduced into a society as unready for them as they were for it. School had been hell, the teasing relentless. In an environment where even minor differences could lead to hazing, Barstow had been cursed with a long, whiskered muzzle, a furry pelt, and a thirty-two inch tail. The more insensitive among his peers named him Bow Wow, and made barking and whining noises behind his back. He was big enough and fast enough to deal with most of the physical challenges. The mind-games were a bit tougher.
In his sixteenth year, Barstow had fallen in love. He never told anyone, not even Felicity, the object of his desire. As the annual Valentines Day celebration approached, hed bought her a card. Knowing that he might never have the nerve to give it to her, he nevertheless filled the inside with verse.
He had arrived at the party freshly washed and brushed, the Valentines Day card safely hidden in his pocket. Slipping into the seat next to Felicity, hed struck up a conversation. It had been so easy. Felicity was bright, friendly, and a joy to talk to. She had rested her head on his shoulder, and he still remembered how wonderful it had been when she stroked his arm, running her fingers through his fur and whispering how soft it was. Just as he reached for the card hed brought, her father had appeared. Red-faced and screaming, yelling at him to leave her alone, hed asked her if she was all right. If she was all right! After thirty years those words still echoed in his head. Are you all right, Lissy? As if he had harmed her. As if he could have harmed her! He didnt remember leaving. His next memory of that day was walking home, Felicitys card still clutched in one paw. Somehow hed ended up on Fowler Street, in front of her house. Sitting on the curb, he had added four new lines to the poem hed written, and signed it Bow Wow. He sealed the envelope, and wrote From Brad on the front. He knew that if he used his real name, the card would likely end up in pieces should Felicitys father see it. He remembered the sadness hed felt as he dropped the card in her mailbox.
The day after the fateful party, Barstow hitchhiked to Atlanta. Lying about his age, he secured a job with the Atlanta police department. The lie had been a desperate and futile act, for a member of a species whose every birth was fully documented and bar-coded, but nobody had batted an eye. Apparently the department felt that tolerating a minor irregularity in paperwork was worth having an officer with the keen senses of a canine. His record in the department was as good as any humans, and if his genetics kept him behind his human partners at promotion time, well, that was the least of his worries. Now, retired with a full pension, he once again called Soperton home.
As he jogged, Barstow realized that it was once again Valentines Day. Thirty years, almost to the day, had passed since he had sought his fortune in Atlanta. To his amusement, he saw that he had turned onto Fowler Street. Smiling at how the mind could play its tricks, he watched the houses flow past. He wondered if he could still spot the one where Felicity had lived. A hundred yards farther on, the scent hit him like a physical forceher scent. He stopped, staring open-mouthed at the house. There could be no mistake. After all this time, she still lived here. All his police training told him to walk up to the front door and ring the bell, but he couldnt. He needed time. Just a few seconds earlier, Felicity had been but a bittersweet memory. He couldnt meet her face-to-face; not yet. He jogged back to his neighborhood, stopping on the way to purchase a Valentines Day card with a nice, blank space inside. Sitting at his desk, he filled the card with the verse hed composed so long ago. Words he thought long forgotten flowed from his pen as if no time at all had passed. When he finished, he signed it just as he had before.
If you were the sun,
Smiling, Barstow folded the card and slid it into an envelope. He addressed it to Felicity, but this time he added, From your friend, Barstow. For good or ill, he was done with hiding. He walked back to the house on Fowler Street and paused by her mailbox, eyes closed, enjoying Felicitys lingering scent.
Is that for me?
Barstow whirled around, and the envelope fell to the ground. Before he could pick it up, Felicity snared it and tore it open. Barely glancing at the words inside, she met Barstows eyes and recited the poem from memory. You remember, he said.
So did you; thats so sweet.
I guess I never forgot.
Ive seen you out jogging. I wondered when youd stop by. I just made tea; would you like some?
Very much, thank you. Barstow held out his paw and let Felicity lead him into the house.
As they talked, Felicity rested her head on his shoulder and stroked his arm. Soft, she whispered. So soft.