James took in the dog because he could not take in his brother’s wife, or his six-month-old nephew. When he learned that Tim had been killed in Helmand province, he had closed his phone and entered the shower and wept mechanically, unsure of what to do next, overwhelmed by a sense of unreality. Afterward he had often thought of driving to the Coronado Bridge and stepping over the railing to join his brother in the cool, soothing darkness. Then in the fall Tim’s sapper unit returned and the Marine Corps had discharged the dog from service. Without his brother as a handler she refused to stalk across the Afghan dust and lay carefully beside the earth to signal the presence of fertilizer and Semtex.
Tim had told him once that fear runs down the leash, but James wondered now if so did death—if when a sniper had shot his brother, and he had crumpled to the ground instantly beside the animal, death had also traveled into her through the tether. The dog had a habit of standing immobile when there were dark-skinned men cutting the grass across the street, and he had seen her turn in a circle once, shocked by the warmth of her own urine, after a plate slid from his hand to shatter the silence of his kitchen.
He had the impression sometimes, when they were alone together, that the dog knew he was very much like his older brother—that he smelled and moved and sounded of something familiar. But he also sensed that she wondered who this person was, and imagined that in her mind she was lost, perhaps in some layer of the afterlife, a place where the object of her love was transformed as a test, and severely diminished.
It was strange to have a pet that had achieved more in its four years of life than he had in thirty. And in that respect, the Malinois reminded him of his brother. Not simply because of the remains of her dominance—she still walked with rigid purpose—but also because she made him feel like an echo of something greater. His brother was gone, and in his absence she was lessened, and there was nothing James could do to control her, and nothing he could change within himself to become the man his brother had once been.
Even his parents reinforced this. They had always seen him as a derivative, and incapable, and the dog, now unchecked by Tim’s voice, had almost killed their Labrador one day when it had approached in the blind of her withers. So he avoided their house with its yard, and their eyes with their grief, and he avoided the dog parks in San Diego. Instead, when he knew that she needed to run, he would drive north to the Central Coast, camping beside its open tracks of sand and its cliffs.
She would sleep for hours on the road, absolutely silent and still on her bed in the cab of his truck. In that enclosed space, with the warmth from the heater, it was as if she could lay the tension within herself aside and allow her nerves to be lulled by the hum of the tires. Then he would open the door and she would run to meet an entirely different form of exhaustion.
They were parked south of Big Sur at the tent sites near San Simeon Creek the morning she saw the cormorant and disappeared into the dune grass. It was late February and a storm had just cleared inland, leaving the air scrubbed and smelling of creosote and pine trees. The park was empty of other men as she went over the berm under the razor sky, chasing the bird, which was already lame in the wing.
“No,” he called after her. “Leila, come back here.”
He stepped away from the fire pit and listened. He could hear her rustling in the undergrowth, still moving away from him, and called to her again. He set his coffee down and ran after the whisper of the scrub and the twigs.
When he came over the berm he saw that she had already crossed a small strip of sand to the creek bank. The bird was ahead of her, at the waterline, waddling across a wet fan of earth toward the center of the stream. For a moment, he expected the cormorant to find the deep water and swim clear, the dark streak of its body outlined against the sunlight on the current. Then the dog splashed into the shallows and loped across the gap between them and the bird turned to snap at her eyes with its beak.
Both animals stood upright and wove and shifted in relation to each other, but only the dog seemed shocked to find her aggression returned. Her spine curved away from her hips like an S, and she closed her mouth as she reared back, blinking, and he almost saw her turn then—like she had with the plate—but she flattened her shoulders instead and came forward, low around the bird’s chest, and seized it by the neck.
When he called to her again it was as if she had gone deaf. She was trotting through the shallow water, holding the bird like a rag, occasionally shaking her head. Another cormorant was watching her from the river, swimming downstream alone toward the ocean. The bird took flight when the dog moved closer, and he called to her again, and she turned back, pointing her ears, but then carried the body around a bend in the watercourse.
She was lost from sight when he crossed under the bridge that carried the Coast Highway over the creek. He called her name again but heard something in his voice that caused him to soften its intonation. He felt hollow in the shade from the concrete overpass and moved into the sun, scanning for a sign of her passage.
Along the coast, a bluff hemmed in the beach to the north. A long arc of sand stretched to the south, naked except for kelp and driftwood. As he moved away from the bank of the creek, he slipped into the mindset of all needful searching, the hope that it may be over instantly, and the anxiety that it would never finish. He did not love the dog in the same way that he had loved his brother—he wasn’t certain he loved her all—but he also understood that she was a part of the raw matter of his memory.
A car approached on the road behind him, speeding over the bridge. The sound made him think of the span to Coronado—two hundred feet to the water, the obligations of those left by the dead. If she simply came back now, he decided, he would forgive her for running. If she came back now, he would forgive her for not listening. If she came back now, they would go to the campsite and he would allow her lick the cold, white beads from a can of condensed milk. Then he remembered how she had turned away from him with her ears raised, the cormorant lolling in her mouth, and decided that if she did not come back now, he would climb into his truck and leave her.
He stopped again and called her name. There was desperation in his voice this time instead of anger, something very near to pleading. He continued across the beach after another minute of silence, finally turning inland to search a footpath that came down from the hills.
He found a hawk cleaning its feathers in a hollow behind the bluffs. They were out of the wind and the bird was very close to him, perched on a bush. He expected the hawk to glide inland as he took another step forward, but it simply continued to pick at the down above its legs. Watching the preening, it occurred to him that the bird was flawless—and that its perfection would soon fade. In his mind these two thoughts came almost simultaneously, the winter of the hawk immediately following its spring.
The bird did not know that it would someday weaken. It only knew, at this moment, its strength. He realized then that his ability to recognize this capsule of perfection, and its borders, had always separated him from his brother.
He saw the portrait of Tim on his parents’ mantle, the precise angle of his arm as he held the dog’s lead. He wondered now who had been more capable, and better suited for what lay ahead. He was alive and his brother was dead, and each decision he had made with this knowledge of transience, and his own imperfections, had led him to stand in this place, still drawing breath.
He was also aware of the implications of that condition, if he chose to remain. He would carry the weight of his brother’s child, growing without a father, and their parents would age, each within the shadow of their fallen son. And he would sit alone in the bathroom to clean their mother, gently rocking her forward from the toilet as she called him Tim. Even the dog would grow old and die, if he could find her, in twelve years, and in that time he would navigate the fields of his own life, while the image of his brother rested somewhere far darker, and quieter.
He looked up at the hawk, the avian flicker of movement, and imagined its golden eyes fading. Then he realized that Tim had not chosen death, or its landscape. He had only proceeded with his knowledge of the present, like the hawk, and like the dog, when she had still been whole, before the sniper.
He came back to the beach and climbed the berm and turned for the tent sites. Calling her name again, he walked along the highway to avoid crossing in the cold beneath the overpass. A husk of road kill lay on the shoulder of the road, and he approached it with care, but it was only the remains of a coyote, long dead.
When he reached the truck, he found her panting in the cab looking pleased. The only evidence of her trip to the creek was a thin film of sea salt on her muzzle. Even her paws were free of sand, and he wondered if she had left the body of the cormorant unburied on the beach.
As he stirred the coals in the fire pit, she jumped down from the cab and approached him slowly to nudge his elbow. He reheated his coffee and took a carton of milk from a cooler in the bed of the truck. He asked her to sit, and she hesitated, watching his hands, but then obeyed when he unfolded the lip of the container.
“Do you want some milk,” he asked.
She flattened her ears and allowed him to run his hand along her head while she drank.
They sat watching the fire and the smoke, which were almost invisible in the sunlight. He wondered what instinct had caused her to return to the truck—and if it was anything like his resistance to the lure of the Coronado Bridge. In their shared imperfection, he thought, the dog was more like him now than she had ever been like his brother. Tomorrow they would climb back into the cab of his truck and drive south, both tempted by the urge to chase something darker. In the gray light of his apartment, they would continue to move forward into the time beyond the capsule.
A flock of pelicans passed over them toward the beach as he was finishing the last of his breakfast. In flight, they seemed almost as flawless as the hawk, but he knew in the water, much less on land, they were disproportionate and awkward.
The dog rose, fanning her hackles, and sniffed the air that came up from the ocean. He took her by the collar as the pelicans descended to the west and held her with little resistance, waiting for more sign of the birds.
When he released his grip, she took a step forward and watched the sky, but did not follow the track into the scrub. He called her name again, and she came back to sit with him by the fire. She seemed to lean against him in a way that she had never done before, but he realized it was only her weight returning his.
Alex Wilson received his MFA from The New School. He is a journalist and magazine editor based in San Diego. His short fiction is forthcoming in the Southwest Review and has been listed in the finals for such contests as the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, and The Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize. He recently completed his first novel.