By Yami Blanford

I came home to a silent house today. I know it’s the same home, but it feels different. It’s quieter. Something feels amiss. Wrong. Violated, even. Everything that belongs to her is scattered across the house. Reminiscences of a ghost. I can’t walk into a room without reminding myself exactly what has been lost.

Hours ago I awakened to an alarming phone call from my mother. Crying, she managed to tell me what was wrong. “We’re putting Annie to sleep today at four. She was having trouble breathing this morning. She’s in a lot of pain. I don’t know what else to do.”

I stood, coffee pot tipped towards a still empty mug, my insatiable need for caffeine forgotten. I tried to find words to comfort my mother, but all that came out was, “She’s old, Mum. It’s for the best.”

“I’m trying to get your dad to come with me to the vet’s. We’ll be gone before you come home.”

I’d almost forgotten I was coming home later that day, after two exams.  My dad was turning fifty the next day, and I wanted to be there for his birthday.

“Okay, Mum,” I said.  “I’ll call you when I leave.”

I flipped my phone closed and stood staring blankly into my sink full of dishes. I poured a cup a coffee, part of a morning routine, and never tasted a drop.

 ***

I was eight years old when we first met. I walked into the front doors of our sunny California home chattering non-stop as eight year olds do. My older brother dropped his backpack, gasped in delight and exclaimed, “A puppy!”

My head snapped around. And there she was. A tiny little ball of fur. Her back and face were a soft red, and her underbelly and legs were white with patches of red that bled into them. She blinked her sleepy brown eyes open, yawned and rolled onto her feet. The bouncing little Brittany spaniel met my brother and me with warm kisses, and her tiny little paws reached for us.

“What’s her name, what’s her name?” I asked my mother.

“Her name is Annie,” my mother said.

Together my brother and I ushered her out into the backyard, where we rolled in the grass together, giving her treats and trying to teach her how to fetch.

 ***

As I drove to school that morning, I couldn’t help but notice that it was actually beautiful. The trees were painted with a gown of white. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that the white was makeshift thorns, but really, the thorns were like individual and delicate snowflakes. Fog had rolled in, blanketing the city in a heavy shroud. The streets glistened, wet.  Headlights and tail-lights kept dissolving in the mist.

I had two exams before I could go home. A part of me wanted to break into tears before the professors and ask them if I could do the exams another day. Some part of me laughed at the absurdity. It’s just a dog. Just a companion of fourteen years. A best friend that saw me tackle the end of elementary school, my first day of middle school, saw me through the unfairness of high school and the journey of college. Just a dog that comforted me through every bad day, bad week, month and year; through the end of friendships and relationships, family fights and boring Christmases. Just a dog that had been there for a majority of my twenty-two years of living, learning and hurting.

 ***

The move to Minnesota was the worst thing any fifth-grader could experience. Two thousand miles by car—across deserts, crowded freeways, wind-swept plains and five states—dumped us into the most miserable state I could imagine.

Minnesota was like a foreign land. There were no skyscrapers or busy streets. No ocean breeze to carry the sticky warmth of sea salt into your backyard. People here felt different—too friendly. I was in a whole other world where you didn’t have to be afraid of strangers.

The only familiar faces were those of my parents and brother. And of course, bouncing, loving and barking Annie. She immediately made a home of our new house, and I clung to her every night for the next three months. Like a loyal sister, she suffered my suffocating embrace. With her face pressed to mine, we fell asleep. I had dreams of waves crashing on the shore, the sound of seagulls in the air, crabs that I could never move fast enough to catch, and best friends I would never see again.

Then Annie would begin to snore and I’d get mad and exile her from my room for the night. She would forgive me by morning, pressing her wet nose against my knees at the kitchen table as I snuck Cheerios to her under the table.

 ***

I sat through my first exam, concentrating hard on something or another. The words failed to reach my brain, but my hand kept moving to shapes and letters that felt familiar. Within twenty minutes, I finished sixty questions and handed in my exam.

What motivation did my mother have for telling me four o’clock specifically? Should I just sit around and wait two hours until my next exam when I knew damn well that the next six hours were the last six hours of Annie’s life? Should I be there to sit in the car and pet her head reassuringly for the hour-long ride to Park Rapids? Should I be the one to drive so my mother could spend her last few moments with her forever baby girl? I refused to wait another two hours before taking my next exam. And so I didn’t.

I flipped open my phone and dialed home. “Mum, I’m going

Another part of me wanted to spend every second I could saying goodbye.

to leave here at twelve-thirty instead,” I said.  “I’ll be home by two. I’ll drive you to the vet’s.”

“You will?”

“Yeah.”

Her voice hiccupped as she spoke. “I’m going to have the vet keep her until spring. I want to bury her. We’ll bury her out back with a headstone and flowers.”

It was really the first time that the severity hit me. All I could think was that I wanted to dig the grave with my own hands. Feel and taste the dirt, get blisters on my hands and make it a labor of love. I wanted to plant wildflowers on her grave and make it beautiful.

I never said any of this. “All right, Mum,” I said instead.  “I’ll see you around two.”

***

I went back to my apartment.   As I did dishes, my rambunctious year-old cat Nick thundered up and down the hallways.  He slid across the tile floor and came to a stop to stare intently at me. He meowed continuously before throwing himself on the ground behind me to pout.

An hour later I packed up my things, and Nick and I began the hour-and-a-half drive home.

The fog hadn’t lifted yet and everyone in Bemidji was driving too fast. The stoplights glowed red, yellow and green through the haze. Behind me, some asshole with both hands clutching his steering wheel rode my ass from one side of town to the other. I would have slammed on my breaks to fuck with him hadn’t it been for Nick.

As I continued down Highway 71, the fog lifted and the sky opened up. The sun glared from the horizon and the road wept with joy. I was going sixty-five, not sure if I wanted it to be forty or eighty. A part of me wanted to be too late to see Annie, too late to arrive in time to drive Mom to the vet’s. Another part of me wanted to spend every second I could saying goodbye. At sixty-five, I’d get an hour with her. I kept a steady pace.

 ***

When my brother left for college, Annie wandered.  She’d spent the past seven years sleeping at the foot of his bed, usually stretched out on her back, front legs crossed daintily over her chest. With no one to sleep at her head, she wandered the house, whining quietly, head down, tail between her legs.      

I took pity on her and opened my bedroom door at two am.

“Come.”

Her head was still lowered but she wagged her tail as she came into my room. She hopped into my bed. I couldn’t even crawl under the covers before she pressed the top of her head into my stomach and pushed insistently, high whines assaulting my ears. I lay down and pulled her into my arms. She let out a satisfied sigh. Within minutes she was snoring. I hardly slept that night.

 ***          

I pulled into my parents’ driveway. Their resort was asleep with the winter, snow blanketing the cabins and covering the RV park in the back.  The trees lost that beautiful coat of white that they had in Bemidji. It wasn’t as cold or foggy. It was still pristine and silent. A Minnesota winter at its best. Cold but bearable.

My dad was napping—I could tell from the hushed way my mother came upstairs. With his epilepsy he had no choice, but I knew he probably wasn’t sleeping anyway. I remembered again that it was his birthday the next day. I didn’t know how I could possibly greet it with a smile, a hug and songs of “Happy Birthday.”

My mother hugged me tight and said nothing. Her hair was disheveled.  No attempts at makeup that morning. She hadn’t even changed out of her pajamas.

“Is she downstairs?” I asked. I let Nick out of his kennel and he pranced away into the silent house without a worry.

“Yes. I had to let her out through the basement window to go to the bathroom this morning. When I let her back in, she just collapsed and started breathing hard and coughing.”

I went downstairs into the basement—both hands reaching out for the railings as though this were some foreign place I had never traversed. The wood railings my dad carved by hand were smooth and grainy. It was cold.

Annie raised her head from the couch and tried as hard as

She tried to convince me that I didn’t really need to leave and my real home was here with her.

she could to stand to greet me, but merely collapsed back into the soft cushion—her head raised slightly, tail wagging. I sat beside her and ran my fingers through her soft hair. The last of the red on her face had faded completely white since I last saw her on Christmas. Her brown eyes were clouded white. I wasn’t sure if she could even really see, but she knew it was me. She licked my fingers before trying to roll onto her back so I could rub her tummy. She gave up once she realized she didn’t have the strength and instead rested her head as I stroked her back. Closing her eyes, she began to shake and tremble, coughs racking her ailing frame. Those coughs, those little hiccups, were when her heart was failing. I wanted to tell my mother she didn’t seem that bad, that maybe it was just a fluke and she’d get better by tomorrow.  But then she started convulsing from the coughs.

My mother sat next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. “I’ve just been telling her thank you for all the good years.”

I hardly understood what she said. I didn’t look at her but instead kept my back to her as I continued to run my fingers through Annie’s hair. I didn’t want Mom to see me cry. For some reason I felt as though it was my duty to be the strong one, to drive her to the vet’s, to be there for her as she found mercy for a companion that was more like a child than a pet.

After ten minutes I couldn’t look at Annie anymore. I had a vision of this beautiful dog running at my side, absolutely losing her mind at the word “walk.” Sitting at my feet under the table as I snuck her scraps, crawling into my bed in the middle of the night to stay warm, and playing tag with me in the summer.

My dad was awake now—I don’t think he was actually sleeping—and took turns with my mom to watch Annie. My mother came upstairs with me and busied herself with making coffee. I pulled out a cutting board and began to chop vegetables that I knew no one would taste at dinner.

 ***

The night before I went to college, I let Annie sleep in my bed again. She seemed to know what was going to happen soon because two years before, when my brother packed all his things in boxes and stacked them around his room, he left. She whined at me as I tried to sleep, licking at my face as though begging me to stay. She tried to convince me I didn’t really need to leave and that my real home was here with her. We could go on walks and I could teach her new tricks. She could sleep on me and I’d pet her until I fell asleep, too.

I promised her I’d be home for holidays and at least every other month.

Before I left the next morning, I hugged her as though it was the last time I’d see her. As I walked to the truck, she began to howl and cry. I didn’t look back. I didn’t have the strength.

I called every day for the first week and my mother would hold the phone up to Annie’s ear. She’d bark and howl before bounding up and down the stairs, going through every room of the house looking for me. When I came home two months later, she tackled me at the front door and knocked the wind out of me. I hugged her into submission and let her sleep in my bed.

***

We lifted her with blankets into the kennel because she was too weak to stand. She still gazed up at us with that unwavering trust and adoration. My dad reassured her that everything was okay. She rested her head as he latched the kennel door. My dad and I carried the kennel to the basement window, where together we lifted it to my mother who helped slide it onto the snow outside.

Annie lifted her head, sniffing at the breeze outside. Her eyes seemed unseeing as she rotated her head around, confused.

“It’s okay, Pups,” my dad said quietly to her. Her tail wagged and her face turned towards the sound of his voice. I had never seen my dad cry in the twenty-two years I knew him, and I watched as he walked out of the room without a word. He wanted to keep that superhero façade as best he could.

I climbed back upstairs and Nick greeted me with playful pounces. I scooped him in my arms and walked into my dad’s room and deposited him into his arms. Dad looked up at me, startled. Then he began to pet Nick. Nick purred in contentment and stretched, impossibly long. I walked out of the room, put on my shoes and met my mother outside.

Together we lifted Annie’s kennel into the car.

“You should sit in the back with her,” my mother said.

“No. I want to drive.” It was probably because I spent the drive

We’d put a party hat on her head and she’d tolerate it for a few minutes before someone took pity and removed it.

here imagining myself being the one driving. Maybe it was because I couldn’t stand to look at Annie anymore. My mother climbed into the backseat and I took the driver’s. I had never driven my mothers car before. It was touchy and smooth, so unlike my piece of shit ’92 Ford Explorer that I would outlive.

The fog was long, long, long gone. The trees melted back to green and colorless twisted wood. People passed us by without a care in the world. A dog trotted alongside the road, its owner faithfully at its side. A few crows lifted from the highway as we passed, screeching obscenities. I turned the radio up. My mother tried not to cry and Annie comforted her with soft kisses through the kennel grate.

It was the same route I took the last three years of high school. The drive would never be the same again.

We reached the vet’s. It was a tiny house that was converted into a veterinarian office. It was painted yellow to give the illusion that it was a warm and comforting place to bring your animals. In the summer the grass was green and flowers were in the windows. That day it just looked cold. A path was shoveled to the front door.

I turned off the car and got out without looking at my mother. Again, we lifted the kennel out of the back. I refused to look inside but I heard the jingle of her collar as she lifted her head. We carried her inside and I set the kennel down beside us. The iron mesh door faced away from me and I was glad. Although I was standing only a foot away, it felt like a thousand miles. I realized that I had been in her presence for the last two and a half hours and I hadn’t looked at her in the past two.

Mom talked quietly to the assistant wearing some bright scrubs with dogs and kitten prints. I don’t think she knew why we were here because she talked so brightly and animated.

There were shelves of dog food, treats, medications and leashes squeezed into the entry where I stood. I stared at them, reading labels, but I instantly forgot what the hell they were.

The vet came out and asked for someone from her staff to help carry the kennel into the back. Mom refused and carried the kennel herself. I watched them as they carried Annie away. Her head was lifted, white-face turned towards me. I wanted to take her face in my hands and smother her in kisses. Instead I turned and ran out of the vet’s and threw myself into the car and cried into my hands.

Maybe we were just some crazy strange family that loved their pets too much. On Annie’s birthday we’d make her carrot cake and sing “Happy Birthday.” We’d put a party hat on her head and she’d tolerate it for a few minutes before someone took pity and removed it. On Christmas we’d wrap her presents and she’d tear off the wrapping paper like a little kid. When she’d find her bone, she’d toss it into the air and prance around like a puppy and show everyone in the house her new treat.  I always took a bow from her present and put it over her ear. She never knew it was there and would walk around all day until it eventually fell off. We’d laugh and take pictures of her. She always looked like she was smiling. For the last fourteen years she hadn’t been a dog; she had been a daughter and a sister. My only sister.

The annoying assistant came out to the car. She tapped on the window and I gave her a deadpan stare. “Annie’s just sitting there very peacefully right now. Your mother wanted to see if you wanted to say goodbye.”

“No.” It was a decision I told myself not to regret for the rest of my life. I would anyway.

“Are you sure? She’s not in any pain.”

“I’m good.”

The lady tried to give me a sad frown of sympathy but it looked more like she was mocking me. I probably would have hit her if I could reach her. She walked away without another word.

I must have sat there for thirty minutes until my mother finally came out. She climbed into the passenger side, tissues in her hand. “I stayed with her for the first shot,” she said.

I started the car and tried to ignore her. I didn’t want to hear it but I didn’t know how to tell her to stop talking.

“But then she started having a seizure. I couldn’t watch the second one.”

“Are you leaving the kennel here?” I asked.

Mom covered her face with her hands and threw her head back and began to cuss. “No,” she said and got out.

I waited for another five minutes before I turned off the car and waited another ten.  Finally she came back out with the animated and inappropriately jubilant assistant helping her. I turned the car back on.

Mom climbed back into the passenger seat. “They took an impression of her paw,” she said. She held some gray clay fancy thing up in a plastic bag, but I didn’t look at it. Mom smiled fondly at it, touching the corners gently as though it was some sort of photograph.

The car ride home was quiet. Annie’s empty kennel lay unattended in the back.

***

Every time I came home in the summer I’d walk across the grass in the backyard, and the moment Annie noticed me she’d run tight circles, barking with glee. The second I came within reach of her leash, she’d jump up and down, her front paws clawing me. I’d roll onto the grass beside her and pull her into a headlock where she’d fight to free herself so she could cover me with licks, nibble at my hair and roll all over me.

Often times I’d sit on the picnic bench with her. She’d lie on it so regally, head lifted, red and white hair wavering in the wind. Her nose would be high, twitching every which way. Although her eyes were old and failing her, she’d still stare as though she could remember everything by memory. We’d lie together and eventually she’d rest her head on my stomach and go to sleep. When I left, she would sit and stare as I went—as though wondering if I was going for good this time. Sometimes she would whine for me and I’d have to tell Mom to let her in so she didn’t drive the campers crazy.

Other days I’d sit in the grass with her, offering her twigs with leaves that she’d shred instantly as though to spite me. Other days I would read her my writings, one arm around her back.  She’d lean against me with her head tucked into the crook of my neck. She would always just sit and listen like the perfect sister, even if the story really sucked.

 ***

I sit at the kitchen table, trying to ignore the sound of my mother’s crying as my dad holds her in the other room. Annie’s dog bowl is still full of food, her leash still tied to the stairs, another walking leash lying by the front door.  An entire bag of dog food and dog treats are still in the cupboard, and countless dog bones are hidden in the couch and around the house that we will undoubtedly find for the next few months. Her hair will cover my clothes when I sit downstairs, no matter how many times my mother vacuums.

There are a million paw prints in the snow outside.

Yami Blanford was born in California and moved to Minnesota in 2000 when her parents bought a resort. Living in the middle of nowhere sparked a creative fire in her that she has been unable to contain.