Happy, barky, sloppy licky kissy reunions continued. Sparky, Buster, Chester and their pack ran down the dog-lined street to greet Kevin’s mother, overflowing with puppy energy as they toppled her over. They each remembered her laugh, her smile, how she loved each of them as if they were the only thing in the world.
This went on for a long time. As the laughs, licks and love that had built up were – for the time – exhausted, Kevin’s mom said, “OK, my babies, ready to go?” They answered with a great deal of yapping, barking, howling and all other sorts of the old dog sounds they used to make back there, before they knew they could talk. And off they all went, running towards the horizon with Kevin’s mother leading the charge as the grass erased signs of the trail. They grew smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the distant blue-orange light glowing near the top of the hill ahead. Then it was hard to see them against the light, and finally, they were gone.
One by one, other friends and family followed the path of Kevin’s mother and her pack. There was Sherry, whose pack had grown after Rusty, even though when Rusty arrived, back there Sherry never thought she’d love another dog again. Cookie led the charge towards Karen. Trudy and her gang took a while because there were so many, but they finally made it to Donnie.
The packs they knew, the ones there when Hugo arrived, were dwindling. An aura of respect grew around Hugo and Zippy as more senior and distinguished leaders of an older pack. As they wandered, deep in thought or chat, younger packs stepped out of the way or strained to catch snippets of their conversation, hoping for a nugget of wisdom. Being revered – yes, that was the word thought Hugo – felt strange and yet, he understood it. Humility comes from respect. Wisdom from experience. They were among the handful here that set the standard for the rest.
They were on one of these wanderings when Zippy finally said the thing that both had been sensing. “It’s not long now.”
“No, I suspect it isn’t,” replied Hugo. He knew Zippy felt a change because he had too. Neither wanted to be first to bring it up. Once out there in the open, it was easier to talk about even as they stumbled over the words. Both wanted to be alone with what they were sensing from Kevin, at least for a while. Despite their wisdom, this was the one thing that any pet only experienced once.
Hearing other pets share what they were feeling as they waited for their person doesn’t matter so much when it’s your time. For Hugo and Zippy, the only thing that mattered was that they were feeling it. And it was growing. And changing. By the time Kaydon popped by and asked why Simon was feeling so sad back there, Zippy and Hugo already knew: Kevin would be here soon.
So, together, they gathered up the pack. And they talked. Everyone had the same sense. Each knew the same thing and were waiting on Zippy and Hugo to make it official.
The puppies – although not puppies anymore but that’s how Zippy and Hugo always referred to them – and the others who came after them, peppered them with questions. When will he get here? How will we know it’s him? Will he recognize us? What if it’s someone else who just looks like him? What does it look like at the top of that hill where the glowing light comes from?
Zippy and Hugo didn’t know any more than the rest of the pack when it came to these questions. They did, however, trust in the mystery of the rituals they had witnessed many times now. It always worked. There was no confusion or mix-ups. Each time, the pet and in those cases, pack, simply knew. Knew the person had arrived. Knew it was theirs. Knew they were about to go on a journey. And most of all, knew the long-ago joy that flooded their souls when they were with their person.
He heard the licking sound before his eyes were open. Zippy, as he’d done so many times before, was licking down there, as Kevin called it. He opened his eyes and marveled, as he’d done so many times before, at how similar he and Zippy looked. Like Kaydon, and the puppies, and the others who’d come after them.
They were outside somewhere. The sun soothed. The breeze swirled dog-only scents around them. They were warm in the thick grass as the lantana, the butterfly weed and the feather grass glowed all around in the Texas heat.
Hugo, for just a second, thought he heard ice clicking in glasses. Zippy lifted his head momentarily as he heard a child’s laughter, barely, floating above the summer breeze. They caught each other’s eye and as Hugo began to speak, he noticed Zippy wasn’t looking quite at him. He was looking past him.
Hugo turned his head to see dogs walking past them. Lots of dogs. The second thing he saw were the rest of their pack – the puppies, the others that came after them, heading towards them. Finally, he grew more aware that the dogs walking past them weren’t simply walking – they were forming a wide path, lining each side.
As the rest of the pack looked at them, Hugo looked to Zippy.
“Well, my old friend, it looks like the next adventure is about to begin,” Zippy answered Hugo’s unasked question. “Come on, let’s be ready.”
And with that, they stood up, Zippy a bit out in front, then Hugo, and finally all the others falling in line behind them. Then they looked ahead, to the dog-lined path. All the dogs who hadn’t left yet, dogs they’d grown fond of and created memories with, were standing tall, heads bowed in honor of their friends.
Such a long path they created! So long they couldn’t see the other end. So they began to walk. As they passed the other dogs, there was a nod here, a whisper there, reciprocated by the pack. They were straining to see the other end, not knowing for sure but full of hope and anticipation. As they neared the end of the dog-made path, there was Kaydon and his pack. Silent, reverent, a bit sad to see his pal making this journey without him while elated at what lay ahead.
Hugo, Zippy, the puppies and the others came to the end of the pathway and looked ahead at… nothing! What’s going on, they collectively thought. Confusion started to set in as the pack talked among themselves. What could this mean? Is this a mistake? Why were we feeling all this for nothing? Neither Hugo nor Zippy had any way of answering these questions. In fact, they were feeling it too along with a little embarrassment for not knowing more than the others.
“OK everyone, calm down, we’ll get to the bottom of all this,” Zippy instructed in an unfamiliar part of his role as pack leader.
That quieted them down, thought Zippy. He looked over at Hugo for reassurance only to see that in unison with the rest of the pack, his head turned to the right of where Zippy stood.
Hugo saw him first, the middle-aged man looking awfully confused. Zippy followed Hugo’s gaze to see a young, laughing kid alternating with a teenager on the brink of adulthood. The puppies saw that gray-haired older man who played with them in the pool. The others saw that familiar face of a frail but happy, deeply wrinkled gentleman who had grown perfectly content with life.
And they rushed towards Kevin, tackling him to the ground as they barked, licked and jumped all over him. There was the childish giggle, the deeper laugh, the wheezing and coughing that was almost a laugh.
Kevin wasn’t confused anymore. Now he knew exactly where he was as his pets surrounded him once again. A lifetime of memories no longer in the making washed over him. Playing chase with Zippy, tug with Hugo, kisses with the puppies…
As all the other dogs filled in the path behind them, watching Kevin and his pack, Kevin looked down at his playmate, his confidant, his soother, his companion and breathing in and exhaling deeply, said the words they’d been waiting to hear.
“OK, ready kids? Let’s go!”
And off they all went, Kevin leading the pack through the deep, green, waving whispering grass that opened a path for them and closed behind them. Up the hill they went towards the glowing light, growing ever fainter, barking and laughing as they went. The other dogs watched them as long as they could. They grew smaller, and smaller, getting harder to see against the light.
At last, they disappeared. The sounds of dogs barking and a child giggling remained, growing quieter until they dissolved into the sounds of the whispering grass.