Fish ‘n Stinks

from Dogs n Cats n Us

Karel Jaeger

“What the hell is that smell?” Pat gagged as he spoke. The smell was rancid, cloying, so rich it clung to everything in the vicinity. He leaned down closer to the dog. “It’s you, isn’t it? What did you get into?” He held two fingers tight to his nose. “Into the bath with you, young lady, until that stink is gone, gone, gone. Or you’ll be living in the tool shed for the rest of your natural life.”

The tool shed was El’s favourite place, so it wasn’t a threat, but at night she slept in bed with him. If she wasn’t there, he got the bad dreams and the sweats and the ghosts. So he had to get her clean. And it was already late, nearly dark.

He’d only just got home from work – late again. And that dark oily substance had the smell of rotten fish, or whale blubber, or … Pat couldn’t think of anything worse. And he knew there was a whale down on the back beach. And he knew El got out of the yard during the day when he was at work.

The neighbours told him about her exploits; they fed her and patted her and made a fuss of her. Most nights, Elaine brought her home, skulking along in an obedient, head-lowered con by the side of Elaine’s wheelchair.

Not like he minded. Elaine was … Well, she was better than he deserved, so he couldn’t think like that. It was always a good chat when El was brought home. The highlight of his day.

He wasn’t allowed to take a dog to work with him, but he would if he could. Poor El probably needed the extra attention to stay strong against the dream demons. He was sure the dog didn’t sleep at night, that she watched him all the time for the first sign so she could lick him and cuddle in next to him, so he could feel safe and loved. Alive. Not buried under tons of earth. Not crushed.

He carried her into the bathroom, realised he’d got the stuff all over his blue work-shirt and the new logo-tie. Too bad if he stank at work – maybe it’d be enough for them to sack him. He waggled his head at El as she began the struggle against the known enemy of bath-time. It was warmer than the sea and she loved that, but …

“If I could, sweets, I’d do it, you know. I’d leave that place and spend the days with you. We’d go to the beach and fish and swim and run around like kids.” He slid the plug into the bath with his toe as she wriggled harder. The tap gave him grief as he pushed with his whole foot against the faucet until the water gushed out and splashed everywhere.

Pat lifted his foot higher to push the spigot back to the centre. El shoved her back legs against his stomach. His upper torso unbalanced. His foot slipped on the now wet floor. The dog went up into the air, all fur and claws and yips as Pat went down. He heard it when his head crunched on the tiles; wondered who would turn the tap off. El landed on his chest, rolled, yelped and leapt off.

He lived alone, except for El. No one would turn the tap off. No one would find him. Pat tried to move, first his hand, then a foot. Nothing happened. At least he could still think – could he speak?

His mouth opened, but not enough. The lips were barely separated. She was there; she licked his lips, whined. He heard the clicker-click of her claws on the tiles as she ran away.

It’s what he would do. Leave the mess behind. Not look back. Not think back. Not go back. He prayed El would go to someone who could love her with all their heart, and not use her like a dream-catcher, like their own personal angel or fairy-mother or whatever it was that he made of her loyalty. He wanted her to be free of the needs he had.

Pat closed his eyes when the blackness of night filled the room. He felt the burn of tears as they trickled down the side of his face. The only thing he’d miss would be that dog.

“El,” he tried to speak. “El, girl, I love you.” It was the best he could do as the cold settled in his limbs. Maybe this was what it felt like to let go. Maybe this is what happened to …

 

A loud white light burned into his skin. He heard words, but they didn’t make sense. It was as if hundreds of people were trying to speak all at the same time and their voices were bright white lights. Pat wanted to tell them to shut up, but he sensed something else. Well, smelled it. That stinking rotten whale smell. El!

“El,” he whispered, as the tongue rasped his face, wiped the tears away.

“It’s alright, Pat. It’s me, Elaine, from down the road. We got the medics here. You’ll be right. The dog came and got me, didn’t you, girl?”

“El,” he said; the sound more solid in the cold air. “Her name’s El. I love her.”

“I know, Pat. You love El.”

“El, I love you,” Pat said.

“And I love you, too,” Elaine said. “We both love you.”


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