Then the Stars Fall

By: Brandon Witt

Part One – Autumn




“HE’S JUST a dog, Bennett! Get a hold of yourself.”

At the deep sound of his master’s voice, the dog lifted his head from where it rested against the door handle and craned his neck to look across the cab of the truck.

“Just a goddamned dog,” Travis Bennett muttered to himself, attempting to ignore the burn of his constricting throat. He wiped his callused hand roughly across both cheeks, the scratch of his stubble loud in his ears. He spared a glance from the road as he pulled his hand away. Dry. No tears. Their absence wasn’t a surprise, but it almost disappointed him nonetheless. “Just a dog.”

With a spray of gravel and a harsh lurch, the truck hit a pothole in the middle of the road. Instinctively Travis’s right hand shot out and steadied the dog, keeping him from tumbling to the floor of the cab. The dog let out a long groan but remained firmly in the divotted spot he’d occupied for years.

The sight of the dog made Travis flinch. With a cursory glance at the rearview mirror, he pulled the truck over to the side of the road, keeping his foot on the brake. “Ah, Dunk. Buddy, I’m so sorry.” He reached out and stroked the swollen left side of his dog’s face. Even in the half hour since Travis had woken up, the dog’s face had nearly doubled in size. His left eye was completely swollen shut. He was unrecognizable. If it weren’t for the reddish auburn fur and white muzzle, Travis wouldn’t believe it was his dog. Even so, the dog pushed his face against Travis’s hand, burrowing closer.

“Sorry, Dunk. I didn’t mean it. You’re not just a dog. You’re gonna be fine. Just fine.” Without looking over his shoulder, Travis let off the brake and pulled back out onto the dirt road. His eyes burned. He swiped at them again.

Still dry.

He didn’t look back at the dog again for the remainder of the ten-minute drive, only muttered words of comfort to his old friend.

“We’re almost there, buddy. Soon. You’ll be good as new by tomorrow.”

Words uttered out of fear.

“It won’t be anything serious. You’re in good health. Shit, you were chasin’ buffalo yesterday; can’t be serious.”

Some that weren’t spoken.

I can’t do this. I won’t. The kids can’t go through this again. It isn’t fair. I can’t do it again.

TRAVIS HAD barely pulled into the parking lot before slamming the truck into park, hopping out, and rushing to the passenger side. He refused to look at his dog’s face as he swept the forty-five-pound ball of fuzz into his arms. “We’re here. The vet’s gonna make you all better.”

He only made it a few feet from the truck before the dog began to thrash. “Goddammit, Dunk, you’re gonna make me drop you.” Still the dog squirmed, looking like a seal caught in a net. Travis knelt on one knee and placed the dog on the ground. He shook, as if attempting to dust away the indignity of being carried, causing his mass of fur to puff out to an even greater degree.

Despite the pain the swelling had to be causing, the dog trotted beside Travis, tiny legs hidden under his hair. If it weren’t for his waddle, he could have almost pulled off the illusion he was floating. Even his floppy ears shuffled back and forth as they closed the last few feet to the vet.

The scent of cleaner and medicine stung Travis’s nose as he opened the door for his dog to walk through. He hated it. Though different, it was too similar to the sanitized stench of a hospital.

“Cheryl!” Travis tried to ignore the tinge of panic his yell betrayed as he crossed the small veterinary office. Leaning over the glass counter, he tried to see down the narrow hallway. “Thanks for coming in so early on a Sunday morning. I sure appreciate it.”

A door closed somewhere in the back, and the clip of shoes sounded on tile. Travis glanced down at his feet, trying to force his heart to slow. The dog gazed up at him, his tailless butt wagging in his typical adoration of Travis. When Travis looked back up, he flinched at the man standing across the counter. “You’re not Cheryl.”

The man let out an easy laugh. “No. Not Cheryl.” He stuck out his hand. “Dr. Ryan. You must be Mr. Bennett. Nice to meet you.”

Travis paused before extending his own hand to return the greeting. He didn’t have time to waste meeting people. “Cheryl’s not here yet?”

“No. She’s not coming in. She called and let me know you were on your way. I was already here trying to get stuff ready for an appointment tomorrow. She’s not used to having me around yet. She said she’d try to call you back and let you know I’d be the one to meet you.”

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