- Length about 4,800 words. Written in June-July 2007. Rated T. No animals or humans were harmed while writing this story.
"Ah, Einstein's here again!"
Dan raised his gaze from the nearly empty glass of beer and leveled a nonplussed look at Bob. Not that he'd been particularly paying attention, but still he was ready to swear that there'd been nobody through the half-open door for at least half an hour.
"What're you talking about?"
"Our new regular customer." Bob grinned at him over the bar and nodded. "He's right there next to you, you're just looking a bit too high up to see him."
Dan looked lower, then still a little lower. "Whoa!"
A pair of large, thoughtful, deep brown eyes peered up at him from underneath a silver-white mop of fluffy hair that looked somewhat damp. An ample white moustache completed the picture, and even though Dan didn't think that the late Albert's nose had been quite that big and black, it wasn't much of a stretch to see the likeness.
None of the other customers seemed to notice. Or maybe they were just too used already to the strange sight? Dan sure had missed out on something while he'd been away on that ill-fated vacation.
"That's the funniest-looking thing I've seen in a while," he stated after staring at the apparition for a few seconds. "Einstein, huh? Whose dog is it?"
"No idea," Bob shrugged. "I just know that he's been coming here for some time now. Probably belongs to somebody who's moved in somewhere nearby. Toby gave him something that first time around, I guess that's why he keeps coming back."
"Toby..." Dan snorted. "Right. Well, if Toby gets the blame, tell me why isn't Mr. Einstein scratching the back door to the kitchen? Why's he sitting here and giving you The Eye?"
Bob smiled, sheepish. "Damn. I've been found out."
"I've known you long enough to know what an old softie you are."
In the corner of his eye Dan saw the dog and couldn't help smiling. Its head tilted from side to side as it looked at whoever happened to be speaking at the moment, with the expression of one who understands every word of the conversation. Then it apparently thought they'd been talking long enough, for it stood up and let out a low growl. Dan was taken aback.
"What, is he vicious?"
"Naah, just talkative, he's the friendliest dog I ever met. Okay, okay, just you wait a moment, little guy!"
Bob pushed himself away from the bar and vanished through the kitchen door, and the dog's tail began to wag in anticipation. By the time the big man reappeared once more, it was already moving so fast that Dan expected the whole dog might be propelled into the air to catch the plate that was piled high with scraps of meat and other delicacies. Bob grinned and squeezed a stripe of mayonnaise on top of it.
"Here you are, sir!"
The dog didn't waste time polishing off the meal, and then it proceeded to lick the plate clean. Dan watched with some amusement.
"He's kind of cute," he said. "I wonder, what do you need to cross to get a pooch like that?"
"Don't ask me," Bob chuckled. "I know nothing about dogs. I can tell a German Shepherd from a Poodle, and I know what a Westie looks like 'cause my sister's family used to have one, back when they still lived around here. But Einstein's none of those for sure."
The dog had gone into some effort to make sure that not a single molecule of the treat was left on the plate, and had even turned it upside down with a paw. When he heard the nickname, he glanced up at Bob and wagged his tail again.
"I think he knows his name," Dan said, incredulous. "Do you, Einstein?"
In reply, the dog jumped up and stretched its long body and stubby legs so that it managed to place its front paws on his thigh.
"I think you really do." Dan scratched Einstein behind one drooping ear, expecting to find knots or matted clumps, but the hair felt silky and smooth. "So, are you as bright as he was, too 每 hey, damnit, down!"
Two pairs of eyes watched as he gingerly rubbed his smarting knee, but only one of the onlookers gave him an apologetic wag of a tail.
"You okay?" Bob asked.
"Yeah, yeah... it's just sore again, and did you know that your Einstein's got fucking hard nails?"
"You should see a doctor about it." Bob picked up a glass and gave it a critical look before placing it on one of the shelves. "Didn't they say that it should be operated, or something?"
"What for? It's not as if I was going to start running marathons," Dan said and took an angry swig from his glass.
"Still. Looks like it's giving you more trouble these days."
There was something a little too understanding about the glance Bob gave him, but Dan ignored it in favor of the remaining beer. He hardly noticed how Einstein, after looking thoughtfully around for a moment, slipped out once more and trotted away. By the time he finally shuffled out, it was nowhere to be seen.
He'd decided to get a grip now that he was home again, to pull himself together and start afresh. That'd been the plan, anyway, but it was just so damn hard to find the energy, and it didn't really help that he still kept having trouble falling asleep. Somehow he managed to force himself to stay at the laptop long enough to get some work done and the paychecks coming, but that plus grocery shopping every few days were as far as his willpower lasted.
Even with the mess slowly accumulating everywhere, the place around him was so empty that it echoed. Music only made things worse, until finally he just shoved all of the CDs into a bag and shoved it under a sofa, out of sight.
He didn't really want to see anyone but he didn't want to be within the same four walls either, so thank goodness there were Bob and Toby and their little place. That's where he somehow gravitated night after night, to sit perched on a bar stool nursing a beer in his hands. Bob, bless him, always found the time to chat, and even if he had the annoying tendency to be so damn empathetic sometimes, he still was a friend.
And these days, more often than not, there was also Einstein to give them something to talk about. He'd drop by at some point, and when occasionally he didn't appear for a day or two, they could always speculate.
"I hope he's not got into an accident, or something."
There was a distinct wrinkle of worry between Bob's eyebrows. "He hasn't been around for more than a week now!"
"I bet he's with the family," Dan said. "He was here, what, on Friday? Maybe they're on holiday, or maybe they've finally learned to close the door."
"Hey, didn't we agree that he's no stray? He's got a family who groom him and love him and feed him, and that's where he's now. Stop fretting, will you!"
"Still. Toby's had to throw the leftovers away, now that Einstein hasn't been around. Such a pity, there was quite a lot of chicken and he likes it so much."
"I know." Sometimes Einstein would rummage through the assorted delicacies to finish off any scraps of chicken before eating the rest; he clearly didn't know what 'saving the best for the last' meant. "But really, Bob, he's just a dog. He's somewhere, he's okay, I'm sure of that."
"Maybe he's got himself in trouble? I mean, he even has his nuts intact and 每"
Dan couldn't help laughing. "Chasing girls where he shouldn't have, huh? Listen, I 每"
His voice drifted off when he turned to look at the thing that had flitted in his peripheral vision. "Wow."
It was Einstein all right, studiously sniffing at the lone tree standing in front of the small restaurant, but he looked unusually sleek and slim. The hair was puffed and rounded like a cotton ball, the beard and legs were so white that they seemed to shine their own light, and the black-gray coat on his long body was much shorter and tidier than before.
The two men stared as the dog considered the blend of messages on the tree, then left its mark on top of it all, and entered through the front door with the air of a gentleman taking an afternoon stroll.
The dog laughed with all of its face as Bob and Dan went to greet it, ignoring the customers who watched in amusement how the latest arrival was welcomed. Even Toby peeked out from the kitchen and, seeing Einstein, hurried back to put together whatever tidbits he could find.
"I think he's been to a grooming salon or something," Dan observed as they watched Einstein chomp on the treats.
"At least he's been bathed," Bob agreed. "Yeah, boy, you're looking more handsome than ever..."
"So, what did I tell you about the loving family?"
"Yeah, yeah, you were right. Too bad, really, 'cause I don't think I'd mind having a dog like that. Kind of like the mascot of the place, you know?"
"You need to find out whose dog he is," Dan suggested. "Maybe he's even sired some, you know, legitimate offspring?"
For a moment Bob looked delighted, then shook his head. "I don't think it'd be a good idea, I'm always here anyway. If I had a dog, he'd just be even fatter than I am."
"Bah. If you had a dog, it'd take you for walks," Dan pointed out. Bob looked skeptical.
"Maybe, maybe not. But really, Dan, you're the one who should get a dog. It'd give you something to do."
"Oh yeah? And who'd take him for walks, you?"
"You." Bob seemed totally focused on arranging something on the bar. "After you've had them fix that leg of yours."
"Lay it off," Dan grunted. "And give me another beer, will you?"
Bob turned to grab the beer tap. "Sure. I just think that you really ought to do something about yourself. Maybe it'd be a good idea to start with 每"
"I told you to lay it off," Dan snapped. "There's nothing wrong with me."
Bob sighed and handed him the filled glass, and Dan drank nearly half of it at one go.
Yeah, it was a blessing that he could at least come here when his ears began to buzz too loudly with silence, even if Bob could be a pest sometimes. But at least the man mostly knew when to shut up, even if he occasionally needed to be told a few times before it penetrated, and in any case talking to him reminded Dan of the fact that he was still alive and that there were people around him.
Every now and then he even went there a bit earlier to eat something, instead of pushing something nondescript into the microwave. Mostly, though, he worked on the laptop until it was getting dark and he had to stop because he didn't want to get up to switch the lights on and his eyes began to water in the glare of the monitor.
At that point he'd get up, toe his feet into the first shoes he could find, and limp the familiar winding route once more. And when he'd see the light from the big window, and the lantern hanging by the door, he'd feel again the sting of a memory. These days, though, it felt somehow duller, even before a few beers.
"Isn't that the same shirt you were wearing yesterday?"
Frowning, Dan glanced first at his shirt and then at Bob. "What?"
Bob pointed at him. "I think you had the same shirt on when you left last night. Dan, for fuck's sake, what're you doing to yourself? Have you slept in it? Or have you even slept in the first place?"
Dan was about to give an angry retort but his sleep-deprived brain snagged onto the question. He thought about it for a while, then snorted wearily. "I've showered and shaved this morning, thank you very much, and I don't usually wear a shirt to shower. Any other questions, Daddy?"
"Well, good." Bob looked as oblivious as he sounded. "And you do remember, don't you, that we're closed tomorrow?"
Dan nearly choked on his mouthful. "What 每 is tomorrow Monday? Shit!"
"Hey, hey, it's not as if I was tossing you out," Bob protested, but Dan shook his head and poured the rest of his drink down his throat.
"It's not that. I've just forgotten to stock up the fridge."
"Why don't you do that tomorrow?" Bob pleaded. "Sit down! Toby can give you something to heat up later."
"Thanks, but I'll pass. There's other stuff I need, too. See you."
"It's raining." Bob pointed at an old bucket placed close to the door. "Take an umbrella. That big green one's been there forever, if anyone misses it they'd have picked it up already."
Dan grabbed the umbrella and hurried out.
It was only drizzling, and out of a whim he decided to walk to the nearby supermarket instead of the usual corner shop. That one had a bigger selection of frozen pizzas anyway, and the freezer had looked pretty empty the last time he'd been digging around. The place was further away and his knee didn't like the rain one bit, but he could always call a taxi home.
That was the plan, anyway.
"Fuck it," Dan mumbled as he stood outside the supermarket with two bulging plastic bags, one umbrella, and no mobile. He fumbled for it in every pocket but found nothing. So he'd either dropped it somewhere, or 每 more probably 每 forgotten to grab it from the table when he'd left. Yes, that was it. He remembered seeing it on the small side table and thinking that no one was going to call anymore that day, so why should he haul it along? Talk about stupid.
Well, at least it had stopped raining. With a sigh he picked up the bags, then pushed the umbrella under one arm and began to limp back.
Wet asphalt glinted, reflecting the light that shone from the windows of the houses lining the street on both sides. Dan focused on just walking to the end of the next stretch of hedge, past the next gate. He'd get home all right, if he just took it easy and didn't overdo things. One step after the other, nice and steady.
A drop of water fell on his head, then another. Dan swore to himself as he stopped and tried to figure out what to do. Two bags plus an umbrella and only two hands? Tricky, but he still had some ways to walk and couldn't really make it any faster. Somehow he managed to get the umbrella up and trudge forward, even if it pretty much covered his field of vision ahead. But then, not many people were likely to be outside at this hour and in this weather, especially not in a quiet residential street like this one.
Startled, Dan turned just a little too abruptly. Pain lanced up from the leg that all of a sudden didn't take his weight any more, and if it hadn't been for the car parked in front of the house, he'd have fallen down. The bags fell on the pavement and spilled their contents everywhere, his umbrella flew to the side. Leaning on the car, Dan gasped for breath and tried to see if the goddamn thing had actually scratched the paintwork on its way.
Something wet slapped against his leg and he squinted down, eyes still swimming. "E-Einstein?"
The dog wagged its tail wildly, then glanced over a shoulder at a man who was hurrying towards them. He was saying something, but Dan didn't hear it until he'd swallowed a couple of times and his ears didn't ring quite so loudly any more.
"Max, what the hell?" The man scooped up the dog and held it under one arm, then peered into Dan's face. He looked worried. "Are you all right? Good Lord, what happened?"
"It's all right," Dan panted, "just twisted my leg."
"Are you sure 每 and Max, you bastard, stop wriggling! What happened? He's never done anything like this before, I swear he isn't vicious or anything! I didn't see what 每"
Then he noticed the groceries on the ground. "Oh shit, just look at that..."
He dug car keys from his pocket and unceremoniously shoved the dog into the car against which Dan was still leaning, then crouched to pick up the shopping. Dan tried to go and help him but regretted the move immediately.
"Oh fucking shit!"
"Hey, hey." The man was next to him in a blink and handed him the umbrella. "Can you stand? All right, you stay right there and let me take care of these. Then you tell me where you live, and I'll drive you home. Or maybe I should take you to the emergency station instead?"
"No need," Dan said weakly. "This has happened before, it's going to be all right in a couple of days."
The man gave him a dubious look. "Are you quite sure?"
"Yeah. Look, this is your car, right? I hope my umbrella didn't scratch it, or anything."
Dan could hear the shakiness of his own voice but couldn't stop it. The knee hurt like bitch, a flaring pain that pulsed and made him nauseous. The man shook his head, peered under the car, then got up. There were dark blotches on the knees of his trousers.
"Never you mind that," he said. "Shall I take you home, or would you rather go see a doctor after all?"
"I'll be all right," Dan insisted.
"But you can't walk," the man pointed out. "You're getting wet, and these need to go into the freezer. Look, let's go inside. You'll sit down for a moment and catch your breath, and then we'll see what we're going to do. All right?"
He put an arm around Dan's waist, clutching the disheveled bags of groceries with the other. Together they made it to the front door, and before long Dan found himself sitting on a kitchen chair, the goddamn leg propped up on another, while his host was busy sorting through his shopping to locate the frozen items. With a nod the man turned around and gave him a worried, scrutinizing look.
"You sure you're all right?"
He had very nice brown eyes. Dan felt seriously light-headed, and was hard put not to chuckle when he realized that the man's expression reminded him strangely of a look he'd seen often enough in Einstein's eyes.
"I 每 don't know."
The man sighed, leaning back against the kitchen top. He shook his head.
"It looks a bit swollen," he observed, nodding at Dan's leg. Dan looked as well and wanted to swear aloud when he saw a misshaped bulge where his knee should've been.
"Shit," he said weakly. He wanted to prod the knee, to see where it hurt, and for a moment his hand hovered above it. Then it dropped back to his lap. No, he couldn't make himself touch.
"You look pretty sick. Care for a coffee, or tea?"
"Tea, please. Don't drink much coffee these days."
The man nodded and turned to fill the kettle. "Now, do you think you could tell me what happened? If it was my fault, I honestly want to know. Did you trip over Max? I'm so sorry that I he was off the leash, but I was just about to open the door and let him in. Can't understand why he'd dash to the street like that."
"I didn't trip," Dan said. "I'm sure I didn't. He just barked and took me by surprise. It's my crappy knee, it's done this kind of thing before."
"I'm just afraid that this time it might not be over just like that." The man frowned at the swollen knee. "Anyway, I'm sorry that Max ran off like that. Can't understand what went into him, usually he's not frightened by umbrellas or, well, anything. And he loves people."
"I know, he's a friendly little guy," Dan said, trying to steer his mind away from the throbbing pain. The man leveled a curious look at him. "So his name's really Max?"
"Yeah, he's Max. Sounds like you know him, though?"
"I do. He's a regular at my friends' little restaurant, up in Burr Alley."
"Restaurant? Oh no..."
"They really like him," Dan assured. "Are you sure he won't ruin your car, by the way?"
"Oh, Max is a seasoned traveler." The man chuckled. "But I think I'd rather go get him indoors if you don't mind?"
"Sure, go right ahead."
As the front door swung closed, Dan shut his eyes for a moment. He heard the burble of the kettle but felt too dizzy to even try to do anything about it. As if all the emptiness and exhaustion of the past weeks had decided to come crashing down on him, now that he was sitting inside a warm kitchen and listening to the water boil.
The switch of the kettle snapped off. Outside, a car door banged and then there were hurried steps. It'd started to rain harder, and when the front door opened again, he heard water beating down on the pavement.
"Ugh, this weather..." His host shook his head and combed fingers through short, dark, wet hair, then grabbed the dog by the tail. "Oh no, Max, you've done quite enough today! Here, come on, I'll take you to another room."
"Let him be, I don't mind," Dan said. "It really wasn't his fault. Just an accident, could've happened any time. And I wasn't looking ahead 每 why, hello Einstein, so you just wanted me to drop by?"
He scratched the dog that jumped up against him, gingerly steering it away from the injured knee. The man shook his head, amused, as he took out a box of teabags and put them on the table.
"Einstein?" he asked.
"That's what my friends call him." Dan took the offered mug. It was wonderfully hot as he wrapped his fingers around it. "Bob says he looks just like this one photo, I'm sure you know."
"I think I do. Did you really say that he often goes to this 每 restaurant? To beg for treats, I bet?"
"Their own fault," Dan snorted. "Of course he keeps going back if he gets a plate full of treats the first time around, don't you think? He's not stupid."
"Oh boy. And I've been wondering if there's something wrong with him 'cause he's not been his usual greedy self. Usually I have to keep a strict eye on his diet, but recently he's been so damn picky with the kibble." The man chuckled. "Well, looks like I'll have to double-check the fence on the back yard, that's where I usually put him when I can't take him with me to town."
Then he smiled contagiously. "By the way, it doesn't seem fair that we already have two names for him but none for ourselves. I'm Sean, Sean Trevor."
"I 每 uhh, my name's Daniel Weller."
"Nice to meet you, Daniel, though maybe it could've happened under nicer circumstances." Sean turned to rummage in the cupboards. "Sorry, I forgot the sugar... now, where the hell have I put it?"
He searched for a while, then straightened his back once more with a satisfied grunt. "There! Sorry about this. We've been living in this house for a couple of months already, but I just shoved everything to the first hideaway I could think of while unpacking, and everything still seems to be a bit this way and that. Haven't got round to rearranging things, I'm afraid."
Sean sat down and picked up the dog. Einstein 每 no, Max 每 settled to sit in his lap and leveled a knowing look at Dan across the table. It seemed to disapprove of the amount of sugar he added to his mug of tea.
"He sure is a funny guy," Dan observed.
"Yeah." Sean and the dog exchanged a grin, or that's what it looked. "Max is my best friend. Or so I've thought, anyway, and now I hear he's been running around and making better friends someplace else!"
"Isn't he just a regular guy, stopping by at the local eatery to have a snack now and then?"
Talking like this, Dan could almost forget the goddamn leg, and his host didn't seem averse to chatting.
"Regular guy, oh yes!" Sean mussed the dog's hair. "Some rascal you are, Maxxie..."
"We just knew he couldn't be a stray," Dan said, carefully sipping the steaming hot tea. "Especially after he came back a while ago looking so spiffy."
"That was when we'd been to see Auntie Grace." Max wagged his tail at the name. "That's right, we both like Auntie Grace very much even though she always attacks us with all those scissors and stripping knives!"
Sean glanced at Dan and looked embarrassed. "Sorry," he said. "I've got used to talking to him all the time. Probably sounds crazy to you."
"No, no. I think I understand." Dan was amused nevertheless. "Who's Auntie Grace?"
"She'd say she's Max's granny. His breeder."
"Breeder? You mean he's a purebred? Like, with a pedigree?"
"Sure thing!" Sean smiled. "He's got a much finer pedigree than most of us. Max is a 100% Dandie Dinmont Terrier."
"Never heard of those."
"I'm not surprised, I hadn't heard either before I met Auntie Grace and her dogs."
"Has he been to shows, too?"
"Yes, quite a few. He's a Champion, our Maxxie boy."
Sean fell silent and merely scratched the dog. Dan sensed the change in mood. It made him feel awkward.
"Sorry," he said, "I'm being too inquisitive, I guess."
"No, I'm sorry. Being a bad host here." Sean put the dog on the floor and gave Dan an apologetic look. "It's just that Max is originally my partner's dog. Grace is his aunt, and she gave him to us."
"Your partner," Dan repeated.
"Yes," Sean said and got up. "He died three years ago in a car crash."
Dan didn't know what else to say. Sean shrugged a little, then glanced at him over a shoulder. "More tea?"
"No thanks. I guess I should be going now."
"On that leg?"
Dan tried to lower his leg from the chair, then grimaced in pain. Sean sighed.
"I didn't think so. Look, I'll take you to the emergency station right now, and when we hear what they say, we'll figure out what to do. Is there someone we should call?"
"No. My friend walked out on me this winter. Found a hot French art student and left to chase him."
Dan swallowed. Why the hell had he said it?
Sean looked at him assessingly, then nodded.
"So you live alone. What about work? I'm betting you won't be going anywhere for a while."
"I work from home." Then Dan remembered the phone and swore under his breath. "Not that I remember any numbers anyway. Forgot my mobile at home, too."
"That's what usually happens," Sean said easily. "When you'd really need it, it's always either out of battery or in the pocket of another pair of trousers. Bad karma or something."
Dan managed to laugh with him at the joke.
"All right," Sean continued, "here's what we'll do. I'll drive you to a doctor and wait there until somebody takes a look at you. Then, if they don't take you in for the night, I'll take you home and bring your things in the morning. They can well stay where they are until then. Okay?"
Dan nodded. He felt oddly relieved. "You're being too kind."
"No I'm not. Even if Max didn't exactly cause this, he damn well had something to do with what happened." Sean reached a hand to Dan. "It's not raining so hard at the moment, so let's get going. Come, I'll help you to the car."
At the door they had to stop, and Sean gave the hopeful-looking Max a stern glare.
"No, Max, you're not getting on a ride this time. Be a good boy and crawl to bed now."
Leaning heavily against the man supporting him, Dan hobbled out and glanced once more at the dog.
Max Einstein the Dandie sat squarely in the middle of the floor and looked sagely after them. Before the door clicked shut, Dan could've sworn that he saw it wink.