The Black Dog by Jemma van de Nes
I turn off my light and fall into bed. Another school term is over. I sigh with relief and close my eyes. Outside, somewhere in the darkness, a dog howls.
I wake to the broken cry of the dog. His desperate howl takes over our house and follows me from room to room. I get ready for my run to the deli, where Mr Meyers makes an awesome bacon and egg toastie.
I write a note for dad, but he probably won't read it.
Outside, I'm on a different planet - one with oxygen. The wind is cool on my skin. I can breathe out here. The coins rattle in my pocket, announcing my arrival like a bicycle bell and people step aside for me to run past.
When I make it to the deli I check my watch. I just might have a chance at cross country next term. Then they won't laugh at me anymore.
I turn when I hear my name.
And there he is. Toby Meyers. My oldest friend in the world.
I don't say hello. I just push past him. It's only when I open the door that I realise my hands are shaking.
When I get home, I leave the sandwich and a glass of water on the table outside my parents' room and knock on the door.
'Dad? Breakfast,' I say.
'Okay,' he replies. 'I'll be out soon.'
His voice is hollow and confused.
Which is exactly how I feel.
The moon is still hanging in the sky when I go running the next day. I ache with loneliness when I see Toby, Connor and another boy eating ice-creams on the bench outside the deli.
I can tell that Toby is the one who glues them together. He's the sun and they orbit around him. They were planets spinning aimlessly in space until he came along.
It was different with us - we were two planets in a galaxy all of our own.
But I couldn't look at him after school camp. Or he couldn't look at me. I don't remember anymore. Once we stopped looking at each other, we stopped talking to each other and then our friendship disappeared into a big, black hole.
I turn around.
Even home is better than seeing him again.
The dog howls for the next two days. I can't escape it. I want to help it, but I don't know how. Then I remember something dad used to say, about action being the best option.
'That way,' he'd smile, 'you have some control over the situation.'
I grab a sheet of paper from the printer and as I scrawl in thick, angry writing, I think how the dog and I are kind of alike - both unsure how to stand up for ourselves.
And then I think how the dog and my dad are more alike - both trapped in a place they don't want to be.
Mr Meyers peers at me over his glasses and clears his throat.
'You want to put this in my window?'
'You wrote this?'
I nod again.
'You may not say much out loud Indiana Richards, but you sure have a lot to say in here.' He taps the left side of his chest.
I know I'm blushing because he changes the subject.
'Why don't you come over anymore? We miss you.'
It hurts that he says we miss you and not Toby misses you.
'How's your dad?'
I shake my head.
Mr Meyers gives up. He hands me a bag of lollies and leads me to the window.
I'm outside admiring my work when I hear them.
Connor and the other boy cross to the park, but Toby walks towards me. He bounces his footy and looks at the sky, the trees, the ground.
Everywhere but me, because I am invisible to him now.
Except for that one time, when I wanted the ground to swallow me whole and it just left me there, exposed for all to see, no matter how many times I kicked at the dirt to crack it open.
Camp was all about team building.
But nobody wants to build a team with a girl who wets her pants.
Connor saw first. He pretended to take a photo with his phone.
Toby and I were meant to abseil down the cliff side by side but instead, he just stared at me. I could hear his silence more than the laughter of all our classmates.
That day, they all peered over the cliff and saw an awesome drop. I looked at it and saw my father falling. He used to work in Police Rescue until one day he landed badly at the base of a quarry and he needed rescuing.
Dad and I ran together every morning. He was helping me train for cross country. Now I wake to the sound of him crying, or throwing up, or shuffling around his room murmuring positive thoughts aloud like the counsellor taught him to do.
I don't recognise my dad anymore.
It's not the physical scars, because they are hidden under his clothes and by his hair. It's the other scars that cut through from the inside, so deep and dark they are like tattoos on his skin that tell the world he is broken.
And I don't recognise myself anymore either because half of me is missing.
Every night I dream that it's me falling down the quarry instead of dad, and Toby is at the top, stretched out, reaching over the edge.
But he's not reaching for me.
He's letting me fall.
'The howling dog deserves better.' Toby reads. 'This has your name written all over it.'
I panic and scan the poster.
Toby laughs. He's wearing sneakers that probably glow in the dark and his hair is long on top and shaved underneath. It's weird looking at him and seeing a stranger.
'I guess we should talk about what happened,' he mumbles.
I want to say, we should talk about what didn't happen, but I can't get the words out in time.
Connor calls for him to hurry up.
Toby holds up the footy and backs away. He looks at my sign and then at me. 'You deserved a better friend that day, but since then ...' he looks to Connor and says, 'I just ... I can't ...'
And then he's gone.
The next morning, mum's back. She's still in her fluoro shirt and work boots, like she couldn't get off the plane quick enough to come home to us.
'Missed you,' she says, squeezing me tight. 'I'm home all week. We'll work this out.' She's talking to me but I think she's trying to convince herself.
She opens their door and I catch a glimpse of my dad. It's the first time I've seen him for a few days. The shock of it, of him, lying there, unshaven and in his pyjamas, it startles me to speak for the first time in ages.
'I'm going for a run,' I whisper.
His eyes ... they are sad, but he smiles and I know he's still in there, somewhere. I push myself to run as fast as I can, to make it back to him before the door closes again.
At the deli, there's a dog tied to the bike racks.
I know it's the howling dog because the owner barges out of the door with my poster in her hands, torn to shreds.
The dog is black with a flat nose. A Boxer. A fighter. It breaks free and bounds towards me in a clumsy, my-legs-are-too-big-for-my-body kind of way.
'Be careful,' the lady warns.
I squat and the dog licks my face and nuzzles my neck. His breath is stinky but warm and everything about him screams love and trust and courage and friendship and loyalty and compassion.
He is all the things I miss and all the things I need.
To help me face Connor next term. To push me to win cross country. To show me how to laugh without Toby by my side. To teach me to understand my dad's illness.
'He likes you,' the lady says, surprised. 'He doesn't like anyone. Not even me. And I own him. Although someone thinks I don't deserve to.' She waves the shreds of my poster at me.
I surprise myself by saying, 'I need a running buddy. I could walk him. Run with him, I mean.'
She looks me over, from my mismatched socks and egg stained t-shirt to the tangled curls that have escaped my ponytail.
'I'm Indi, by the way.'
Through narrowed eyes, she says, 'Okay. Here's my number.' She hands me a card. 'Check with your parents and get them to call me.'
I pat the dog.
'His name's Max,' she says.
I run home smiling.
Max is my dad's name.
Copyright © 2015. Jemma van de Nes