When you walk through the forest at night, there’s a sense of wonder that only the wild can bring. The sky is an ebony black blanket dotted with thin pinpricks of gold thread, and the leaves whisper like sacred words that no matter how much you try, you can´t hear.
This is why, even though we are entering the woods for a rescue mission, I can’t help but feel a wave of calm wash over me. Only nature can do that to me. Our feet tread on the ground quickly, each step erupting a new chorus of crackles and snaps. My sneakers are worn, and the laces fall out of my knots every few minutes, causing me to stop every so often to re-tie them. The lights of our flashlights tear around dark places, and I catch bits and pieces of an image every time. A squirrel scurrying up a tree. An owl shifting its wings. A pine branch bobbing up and down. But Ace is nowhere to be found.
Maya is quickening her pace to catch up with me, and I slow my strides a bit. Her tiny legs make their way forward, and she looks up at me, hazel eyes wide. She’s equipped with a pink princess jacket starring Jasmine, and her long blond hair tumbles down her shoulders.
“What if we don’t ever find him? What if he ends up living all out here on his own? How will he ever survive without me?” she asks. I force myself not to roll my eyes. Ace would probably thrive in the forest. I recall the many dead mice that have made their way into our house over the years. But this is my six year old sister we’re talking about. It’s my job to make her feel better.
“Don’t worry, May, I’m sure Ace will be okay,” I say, “and he might even be happier.”
“What do you mean happier?” Maya pauses. She interlocks her small fingers into mine.
“Dogs come from wolves, you know,” I say, “Ace might fit in perfectly in the wild.”
Maya opens her mouth as if to say something, but she swiftly shuts it. We continue our path through the vegetation. Every few steps she stumbles over a vine or root, so I hoist her carefully onto my back as a way of lessening the journey.
We continue like that for a while, nothing but our footsteps sounding in the air. The sky’s getting darker, and I’m thinking of starting home, when Maya speaks.
“He was always there for me, you know,” she said, “I could come home and he would be wagging his little tail and lolling his little tongue and giving me little kisses everywhere.” I privately think to myself about the number of germs travelling on my sister right now from that little terrier’s mouth. I want to grab a disinfectant spray immediately.
“Go on,” I say instead.
“Even when my friend Lola started crying at school because she couldn’t do her homework and the teachers got mad and I got into trouble for letting Lola cheat off of my paper, Ace was always there. And when the neighborhood kids wouldn’t play any ball with me and Lola moved away and everybody said that I had cooties, Ace was there. At the door. Wagging his little tail. Lolling his little tongue. Giving me little kisses everywhere,” said Maya. Her voice breaks, and I know that she’s crying. Her eyes are shining and her cheeks are wet, and her nose it red. Is it odd that I knew none of this? Knew nothing about Lola or the homework or the cheating? Did Maya not want to tell me? Did I not want to listen?
I feel a little bit of kinship towards the dog. He kept Maya happy, like I should’ve done. Maybe I should’ve given him a chance. But the memory returns, and that thought soon disappears.
“I know you don’t like him,” said Maya, as if she read my mind, “and I know why.”
I look shocked and I know it.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I heard from one of the other kids at school. About how Mr. Grayson’s pit-bull had escaped from his chain. And how you were walking to school like every other day. And how much you loved dogs. So much, so much. And then the pit-bull was on you. And he was barking. And clawing. At the ground. And how you fainted. And how, the week afterward when you were supposed to write an essay about your favorite animal, you chose dolphins,” said Maya.
I was shivering. My whole body was twitching. That experience-the hot breathe, the snarl, the rows of teeth, that malicious glint in his eye.
“Ace isn’t like that,” Maya said. She tugs on my hair to let me know that she wants me to let her down.
I look at her. Her blond hair is tumbling down her shoulders, yes, her hazel eyes are wide, yes, her tiny frame is wrapped up in a princess jacket, yes, but I suddenly realize how grown up she looks. And I lean down and give her a tight hug, a squeeze to let her know that I understand. I wonder what happened that changed it from me helping her to her helping me. I guess I’ll never know, because at that moment a white flash crosses my vision, and a little terrier named Ace finds his way home.
“You know, Jasmine is the best princess,” starts Maya as we head home, her arms gripped around the dog.
“Oh, no she isn’t…,” I begin, and we fill the walk back to our house with playful teases, nothing but happiness rising in my heart.