Gary’s dad, Raymond, was so engrossed in his telephone conversation with his older brother that he barely paid any attention to his ten-year-old son when he came back into the cabin – or the fact that the youngster was crying.
“About fifty feet in diameter,” he shouted unnecessarily into the mouthpiece. “All silvery and shimmering in the sun. I tell you Chuck, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it in my life.”
Gary moved close to his father, who was leaning on the kitchen table, and tugged at his jacket.
“Not now, son,” Raymond said impatiently, gently pushing the boy away.
“Can’t you see I’m busy? It’s not every day we get a flying saucer visiting these parts. I just wish I’d had my camera handy before it took off.”
Disappointed at his father’s lack of interest, Gary went out onto the stoop where his mother was sitting quietly reading. Quickly he ran into her arms and sobbed out his story.
By the time Raymond got off the telephone Gary had already gone to bed and cried himself to sleep.
Sheepishly, suitably chastised by his wife for his insensitivity, he crept into his son’s bedroom, sat down beside the young boy and stroked his fair hair.
“Dad?” said Gary, awakening slowly, then excitedly sitting up. “Dad? Did you find him? Did you find Rusty?”
“No, son,” Raymond said gently. “No, we didn’t. Uncle Chuck and I scoured the forest until it got dark but there was no sign of him.”
“So he’s gone forever, then?” Gary sniffed. “I’ll never see him again.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” said his father, trying to reassure him.
“Golden retrievers are smart dogs. My bet is that a cougar or bobcat spooked him and he’s hiding out until the coast’s clear so’s he can make it back to the cabin safely.
“And don’t forget – he does have his ID number, 8 2 2, tattooed on his belly if somebody else finds him.”
“Rusty doesn’t get spooked,” said Gary defensively. “He’s not afraid of anything! He’s just curious, that’s all.”
“Maybe he saw the UFO too, thought it was some sort of giant Frisbee, and tried to catch it for you.” His father chuckled at the idea.
“That’s not funny, Dad,” Gary said through fresh tears. “I really love Rusty. He’s not just a pet, he’s my best friend. Besides, I never saw any UFO.”
“Yeah, I know he is, son,” said his father pulling the boy into his arms. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to cheer you up a bit.”
“I called after him for ages,” said Gary biting his bottom lip, “but for whatever reason he didn’t pay any attention.
“I hope he’s all right and that he’ll come back to me soon.”
It was the day before Gary’s sixty-fifth birthday and the last that he would spend in his ramshackle cabin, the only home he’d ever known.
Tomorrow he would load his meagre possessions into the back of his pick-up and set off for Prince Rupert, and the comfortable condominium he’d bought for his retirement.
He’d miss the forest, he mused as he entered the clearing; the hooting of the great horned owl and the mournful night-time howling of wolves.
Most of all, he would still miss Rusty.
Even though it was over half a century since his beloved pet had disappeared without a trace.
True, there’d been several dogs since then, and he’d loved all of them, each in their turn… but none as much as Rusty.
What had become of him? he wondered. Had he simply got lost in the forest and fallen victim to a hungry predator?
Or had he been accidentally caught in the cruel jaws of a trap line that had been set and forgotten a century ago by some long departed pioneer, and starved to death patiently waiting for his master to rescue him?
He simply didn’t know.
Gary leaned back against the arbutus, cupped his mouth with both hands and called the retriever’s name.
“RUSTY,” his voice, still strong and powerful, echoed through the trees. “RUSTY, over here, big guy!”
It was a ritual he’d gone through at least once a week for fifty-five years.
“Come on, fellah,” he coaxed. “It’s your last chance. I won’t be doing this any more after today.”
But as usual there was no reply.
Sadly Gary turned away from the arbutus tree and began the short shuffle back to his cabin.
It was a pointless practice, he realised that, but somehow he wanted his dog’s spirit – and he firmly believed that all animals had a spirit – to know that he’d never given up hope.
The memory of the love they’d once shared was just as strong as ever.
The golden retriever, confused, stood on the edge of the clearing, his head cocked to one side facing the approaching person.
His nose told him one thing, but his eyes and ears said something different about the old man calling his name.
Gary stopped dead in his tracks.
He looked in disbelief at the young animal just a few yards ahead.
The retriever stared back.
“Rusty?” he said more to himself but still loud enough for the dog to hear. Then much louder, “Rusty?”
It began as a cautious, uncertain, hesitant lope that rapidly morphed into a full-blooded charge as the dog recognised his master.
Gary slowly dropped to his knees and opened his arms but the dog continued full speed, crashing into his owner then wrestling with him and barking noisily, just as he’d used to do when the old-timer was a boy.
The man’s face was wet both from the young dog’s licking and his own tears that ran unashamedly down his cheeks.
“But how can this be?” he asked himself as he finally stood up and dusted himself down. “You haven’t aged a day since I last saw you. You can’t be my Rusty… Can you?”
There was only one way to find out.
Gary stepped back from the dog that now sat patiently and eagerly awaiting for their game to continue.
“Lie down!” he ordered.
Immediately the retriever adopted the prone position but continued to look up at the old man expectantly.
“Die for your country!” Gary commanded.
The golden retriever rolled over onto his back, his forepaws slightly bent, eyes closed.
Painfully Gary knelt beside him and parted the young dog’s belly fur.
“8 2 2,” he read, shaking his head. “Now how the heck is that possible?”
So engrossed was he with his dog, he didn’t notice the stranger in the grey, one-piece uniform standing just inside the forest.
The visitor was smiling as he turned his back on the scene and retraced his steps to the spot where he’d landed shortly before.
It was only after he’d had taken off following his first visit and set the spacecraft’s course back to his home planet several light years away that its pilot became aware of the animal’s presence.
Having sneaked on board behind him without his knowing, it now sat unafraid in front of the flight console.
Its head was tilted to the left, a beseeching look on its expressive face.
After he’d got over his surprise, the pilot evaluated his choices of what to do next. However, since the bringing of any living creature either by accident or design back to his planet was absolutely forbidden, there were only two.
He could either destroy the animal by ejecting it into the near vacuum of space … or return it to the exact spot where it had stowed away.
But because his craft was now travelling at near light speed, this second option would have to be acted upon immediately, as all life on that planet was ageing many times faster than that in his spacecraft.
And even then it might be too late.
In the forest’s clearing the old man hugged his pet, oblivious to the unusual humming sound emanating from the large, disc-shaped spacecraft as it rapidly ascended and disappeared into the deep blue sky.
We’re adding a new doggy-themed short story from our archives every Monday and Thursday throughout September. Look out for the next one!