By Melissa Marni
The strangest things can lurk beneath the dark and in between.
Like him. Or me.
But not today. Today is a day made for honeyed sunshine and happy walks taken together on green whiskered brush edging the Ohio River. The clouds above are glorious, bubbly air-froth pinned to the bluest of skies.
It wouldn’t be right to tell anyone I found Damien because the truth is, he found me.
(Where am I from? What’s my name? I’m Maxine from Ohio and it’s nice to meet you, too. Where exactly in Ohio? Nowhere exactly, just Maxine from Ohio and that’s all I can say.)
Six months ago he drove me home to his half-empty barn outside of Marietta where we’d find a life simple and quiet as the rain. That night he kissed my nose with hollow affection and said he’d love me one day, just like he had loved Betsy. Even if Betsy was his recently passed 14-year-old Dalmatian, I wasn’t offended. A man’s love for his dog is the purest kind, so in this nose-kiss, I sensed what could best be called hope.
Time before Damien soon became a blur of biting at fallen burger buns or burnt pizza crust – a competitive game played against flies – and sleeping on beds made from concrete sidewalk, hard against my ribcage. Now every moment I live for him; for his lopsided smile, for the warm food he puts on my plate and for his vermilion hair, those curls of red coiling above pale skin that turns beige and freckly in the summertime. I’d lick every one of his freckles if I could. Mmmm.
“Maxine! Maxine, where are you?”
I’m busy resting beneath the shade of a tall, husky pine when I hear him yell my name. “I’m here!” I wanted to reply but he already found me. Damien is brushing a freckled hand along my short, coffee-with-milk colored hair before I can open my mouth to speak.
“Should we take a dip in the water? You’re certainly dressed for it.” He chuckles and I smile because I’m wearing nothing at all. Who would know? Or care? We’re deep in the woods of southeastern Ohio on a syrupy hot day in June. If I was in the mood to put on clothes (and I never was) this certainly wouldn’t be the kind of weather for a dress and high heels. Besides, my toenails are probably too long for shoes.
“C’mon, let’s walk a little more, baby girl. I know it’s hot and you need some water but we’ll be swimming soon enough. There’s a clearing up ahead where we can leave our things.”
I nod but something in me twitches because the clearing is where he used to take Betsy the Dalmatian when they went for a swim. I am not Betsy, I am me, a chestnut-haired, fully alive female who would go anywhere with him, do anything for him. When will he let go of her memory? When will she fade into black-and-white spotted nothingness?
Slurping up the sweat above my lip, I follow just behind Damien, listening to the thunderous sounds of shrubs crunching beneath his feet. My own feet are starting to beg for a scratch, and so I oblige, clawing at a raw spot by my left ankle. The only problem with nakedness in a forest is the constant itch you feel, as if unseen critters have taken up permanent residence across your skin and inside your ears.
We reach the clearing, a meager patch of pebbled dirt, and Damien shucks off his shoes and t-shirt. His freckles-and-sweat skin glistens handsomely in the sunlight. I might lick that face yet …
“Woo! Let’s jump in!”
A splash or two and he’s wading through shallow wetness, singing to the water that ripples a river dance of tiny waves toward shore.
“Two drifters, off to see the world, there’s such a lot of world to see …”
I swim up beside him and he sends a silly grin my way. He’s humming now because he doesn’t remember the rest of the lyrics to Moon River but his voice is all I hear on this windless afternoon. What other sounds matter when Damien is swimming by my side?
But then the breeze picks up, a sudden gust whipping the water to sharp peaks and I’m paddling against the current, afraid for what comes next.
“Isn’t this perfect?” He asks and I tell him I’m not so sure. If this is what perfection feels like, it’s far more foreboding than I thought.
Damien is treading unaware through the lukewarm water when I first see it, an awful shimmery thing that cuts across the wind-churned river first left then right then left again. Without warning, it leaps from the water and I can can make out its small, silver-plated body, the armor of a river warrior set to destroy.
“Watch it!” I yell to Damien but in my exasperation the words come out sounding like a growl. Swimming furiously to reach him, I bite his arm gently; he needs to understand I’m only trying to keep him safe.
“Ouch! Maxine, stop! Ow!” Damien pushes me away and every inch of my body shrivels in defeat. The silvery thing is gone. My disappointment remains.
“Maxine, it was just a fish,” Damien says with a cockeyed grin. “Although, I’m glad you were there to protect me, my girl. You’re the best.”
He pats my head to show me he means it and I wag my tail happily through the dark, muddy water because I know now that I’m his best friend, his only dog for life.
[This story is a collaboration with Luke, a talented photographer based in Cincinnati, whose dog, Max, is featured in the picture that inspired the tale you just read. View more of Luke’s photos on Instagram, where he goes by @purposeofenvy.]