Mason and the Dog WranglerBy: C.L. Etta
It happened again like it had on numerous occasions since I’d gotten the news that my best friend, lover and husband of my heart—if not paper—had died while stationed in Germany. The remnants of the nightmare trapped me in its wake as I lay in my empty bed in a cold sweat, shaking and crying. After serving two tours in Afghanistan, it was inconceivable that something so mundane as a car accident had taken my Pete. You’d think after four years raising our infant daughter alone, the nightmares would disappear.
I surrendered myself to another sleepless night, padding down the hall to check on Nik. She slept like always, curled around her stuffed bear with a thumb in her mouth. I watched the rise and fall of her chest, thinking about the too-few evenings we’d shared with Nicole before Pete had reported to Ramstein Base. I still found it unthinkable that three months after he’d left home, the military police had knocked on my door with the life-altering news that he had died.
People said it would take time, but dammit, how long did I have to wait for a decent night’s sleep? That was all I wanted, having resigned myself to devoting my life to Nik. I wasn’t complaining, but there were nights like this one when I’d welcome a warm body to share my bed. Nik begged me to buy a dog so I wouldn’t always wear a sad face. Poor kid. She never knew her daddy and had only ever had me, her heartbroken papa. She needed more than a parent who tried to hide his pain behind a façade of false cheer. She deserved a happy and fun-loving father.
I sat on the couch, staring at the blank television and thinking of Pete. I still saw his rugged good looks, the tilt of his lips when he smiled and the way his eyes twinkled whenever I did something silly. He’d loved me, and I ached for those treasured moments we’d spent, sharing our plans and a cigarette after Pete had fucked me blind. I could use a smoke to help me go back to sleep but cursed myself for having given them up for Nik’s benefit. Before she’d come into our lives, I’d chain-smoked, occupying the lonely nights of Pete’s deployments and concentrating on the mesmerizing tendrils curling into the air. Now, fading memories were all I had left.
The little voice startled me, and I realized I must have dozed. I shook my head, chasing away the cobwebs and settling my gaze on the winsome face of my daughter. She hugged Winston, her ever-present friend. It was time to wash the plush bear and sew his eye in place again. The poor thing was ready to go to stuffed-toy heaven, but because Pete had placed it in Nik’s crib the morning he’d left for Germany, I couldn’t tolerate Winston’s demise. So, I kept washing and sewing him, doing whatever I could to hold on to this small piece of Pete for Nik—and for me.
“Papa? Did you have more bad dreams?” My little girl crawled onto my lap and put her arms around my neck, watching me with her big brown eyes. She saw into my soul and held my heart in her small hands. I sighed at the comfort she offered with her sweet voice and clean scent. Guilt swept through me for needing her to fill my empty spirit.
“I’m fine, Sweet Pea. Are you hungry?”
“Are you sure, Papa?”
“Yes, I’m certain. I dreamed of Daddy, but they were good dreams,” I lied. “What do you want for breakfast?”
“Can we go have pancakes? Please?”
Most of the time I was frugal with our money but Nik loved going out and eating breakfast, a ritual we indulged in once a week.
“Hmmm. All right, pancakes it is. You get ready while I shave.”
“Yay! Can Winston go, too?”
“How about if he guards the house while we’re gone, since he has a bad eye? Okay?”
“Oh no. Does he need another operation?”
“Maybe just a small one.”
“Aww. Winston, you be a good bear until me and Papa come home.”
I chuckled, listening to Nik’s one-sided conversation as she dressed. I hurried to my room to get ready for a date with my best girl.
“You ready, Papa?” She burst into my room, waving her hair brush and ponytail holders. It only took a second to put her hair in order. I grabbed my keys and wallet, and we were off.
We filled up on blueberry pancakes and bacon while making plans for the day. Nik offered her suggestions while licking syrup from her fingers. “Let’s go to the zoo! I love the ducks and giraffes and elephants and the lions and the Winstons.”