A new family begins to bond in this poignant short story by Alyson Hilbourne.
IT has been three hours now. Three hours since Fossil went missing. Reuben and I were walking him on the hill and he ran off. We’ve been out, shouting and calling, chasing round our usual routes until Reuben started to fade.
He plodded along, his shoulders slumped and a look of weary resignation stretched across his face.
“He will come back, won’t he?”
How can I answer that? Reuben looks at me as if I can fix everything. I want to pick my son up and hug him tight. I want to protect him from the world.
“I hope so, sweetheart.” It’s the best I can offer him.
I think back to the day three months ago when we got Fossil. Reuben chose him at the animal rescue centre and we visited a couple of times before they did a home check on us.
Then Fossil arrived, wagging his tail and with a list of instructions as long as the M1.
It was Reuben’s excitement I remember most. For the first time his face lit up from inside so we could almost feel the heat coming from him.
“Can he stay with us for ever?” he asked, his voice shrill with disbelief.
“That’s the plan,” I said, grinning at my husband. “Brilliant,” Reuben said. He didn’t want to go to bed that night.
“Fossil might be lonely,” he said. “He’ll be scared in this new place.”
I swallowed. Such understanding for such a small boy.
“I think he’s all right. He seems happy on his bed.”
Fossil lay on the new red cushion surrounded by a wealth of toys and chews.
“You can give him a goodnight hug.”
Reuben cuddled the dog then I took him upstairs and read him a story before tucking him in.
In the morning, when I came down, they were curled up together on the cushion. Reuben had his head on Fossil’s stomach. Only three months ago. Now we are cold and tired after searching and our voices are hoarse. I sit Reuben at the kitchen table and make hot chocolate.
While he is drinking, I ring the rescue centre. They suggest I call the police and vets.
“Someone may report him,” they say. “Give them all the details.”
“He’s large, ginger and shaggy. A cross between an Irish setter and other things,” I tell the policeman.
“You’re not selling him well,” he says, but I can hear the smile in his voice.
“You have to know him to love him,” I say, thinking how Fossil loved every one of our family.
I thought of how he and Reuben spent hours entwined on the carpet; how Fossil would lean against my leg all afternoon, happy with human contact.
“We’ll have lunch and then go out and look again, OK?” I ask Reuben.
He nods and I see his lips puckering as he tries to control his emotions.
“I’m sure we’ll find him,” I say with more confidence than I feel.
After lunch we go out. Reuben, with renewed energy, runs up the path through the woods.
I hurry to keep up. I can’t lose both of them.
When we get to the river, Reuben peers in the water as I search bushes and call Fossil’s name.
As each hour passes I feel more despondent. How is Reuben going to cope if we don’t find him?
We are out for three hours and cover most of the places we’ve ever taken Fossil on walks. I’m exhausted when we get home.
I turn the TV on for Reuben, but he buries his head in his hands.
I should start getting dinner ready but I can’t think straight. My mind is full of images of Fossil.
I drift about the kitchen, getting out onions and potatoes but not doing anything with them.
I go into the living-room to comfort Reuben, but he shrugs me off. He’s become a tight ball of anger and worry.
I’m relieved when I hear Charlie’s key in the door. Both Reuben and I race to meet him.
“Fossil’s gone!” Reuben bursts out.
All the emotion he was keeping under control cracks and tears roll down his cheeks.
“Gone?” My husband looks at me.
“Fossil ran off,” I explain. “You know how he does, chasing smells. But this
Reuben and Fossil loved each other. But now Fossil had disappeared . . .
time he didn’t come back.
“We were out calling for ages. We went out again this afternoon. I’ve phoned the police and the vets.” I let my hands drop. “I don’t know what else to do.”
I’m as close to tears as Reuben, but I swallow them back.
Charlie purses his lips. “Mmm,” he says. “How about making posters?”
Reuben looks up with interest at this idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
“Come on,” I tell Reuben. “Let’s look on the computer and find a good photo.”
“I’ll take the car out and have another look round,” Charlie says, putting his coat back on.
Reuben and I sit at the computer, flicking through hundreds of photos.
“Look!” There’s a smile on his face as Reuben sees a picture of himself with the sandcastle Charlie had helped him build.
Fossil is sitting on the top of it, looking as pleased as Punch, convinced they’d spent two hours building it just for him to destroy it.
I remember the afternoon well. It was Reuben’s first trip to the beach, and Fossil’s, too. They both stood on the edge of the water, nervously jumping as the waves approached.
Fossil barked as the water reared up in white ridges and Reuben scooted back to dry sand.
We’d eaten a picnic with the wind blowing our hair about. Fossil ran round in excited circles, barking as we showed Reuben how to collect shells, then Charlie helped him build the castle.
It was the first time I felt things were going to be
OK, and I know a lot of that had to do with Fossil.
I move on to more pictures of that day, then ones in the garden and out on walks. The more I look, the more I realise most of our photos of Fossil have Reuben in them, too. They have been inseparable since the dog arrived.
Eventually we agree on a photo. Fossil is running towards the camera, legs splayed, mouth open and tongue lolling. His eyes are wide and there is a look of determination on his face.
“I’ll have to crop it,” I say to Reuben.
“What?” he asks.
“Cut the photo so it only shows Fossil, not you.” “Why?” His voice rises. “Because if we are going to put it up all round the streets I can’t put your photo on it. It’s not safe.”
He pulls a face. He doesn’t like being separated from Fossil. Not even on paper.
I centre the cropped picture on a new page and write LOST at the top, showing Reuben the letters and explaining what they mean.
I put Fossil’s name and our names and the phone number.
“0-7-8 . . .” Reuben repeats the numbers as I type and I clap when he’s finished.
“Right, let’s print these.” We have a dozen or so pages when we hear Charlie come in again.
Reuben rushes to show him the posters.
“Great. That’s good. Let me have a cup of tea and
I’ll go and put some up,” Charlie says.
I clap a hand to my mouth. I’ve forgotten all about dinner. It’s long past our normal eating time.
“I’ll make something,” I say. “Beans on toast OK?”
Charlie nods and puts the kettle on.
We sit round the table. Charlie is the only one who tucks into his dinner; Reuben just pushes beans around the plate.
I can’t be cross with him, however, as there’s a lump in my throat preventing me from eating, too.
His eyelids are drooping and he looks as if he may slip off the chair.
“Do you want to go to bed?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I want Fossil.”
“Dad will go out with the posters after dinner,” I say. “We’re doing all we can.”
We sit for another 10 minutes and eventually I clear the plates and throw Reuben’s dinner in the bin.
Charlie scoops up the posters and takes some tape.
I get Reuben upstairs and ready for bed. He wants to take Fossil’s raggedy teddy up with him.
“What if Fossil comes back in the night and needs it?” I ask, trying to deter him from having the dog-chewed toy in his bed. “Let’s leave it downstairs.”
“Will Fossil be back in the morning?” Reuben asks. Tightness grips my chest. “I hope so, sweetheart.” When Charlie comes back we sit on the sofa. I stare at the TV without seeing anything. I’m listening with one ear for any sound that could indicate that Fossil is back.
“You didn’t see any sign of him?” I ask Charlie. He shakes his head. Eventually we go up to bed, too, but I spend the night tossing and turning, and around five o’clock Reuben tiptoes into our room.
“I wet the bed.” His voice is small.
He hasn’t done this since we’ve had Fossil.
I crawl out of bed and change his pyjamas. Then I pop him in bed with Charlie and replace his sheets.
I’m fully awake so I go downstairs and put the washing machine on. I make a cup of tea and stand clutching the cup as I watch the sun come up across the garden.
Charlie and Reuben appear half an hour later. “It’s early,” Charlie says. “I don’t think anyone slept well.”
We’re all sitting at the breakfast table, wrapped up in our own thoughts, when my phone rings.
I fumble to answer it and almost drop it on the floor.
“Hello? No, it’s not too early. Really?” I grin at Charlie and Reuben. “All night? I’m sorry. Yes! See you soon.”
I put the phone down and feel such a relief of tension my body flops.
“Fossil has been at someone’s house all night, sitting by the gate. It seems he has a lady friend.”
Charlie guffaws with laughter while Reuben looks puzzled.
“Doesn’t he want to be our friend?” he asks.
“Oh, he does. He wants a lady friend as well, though,” I say. “Now, let’s get coats on and we’ll go and get him. Remember the lead.”
We walk to the address the caller gave me and, sure enough, there is Fossil sitting outside the gate.
“Fossil!” Reuben yells and the dog comes running towards him, legs splayed, tongue lolling.
Reuben hugs him and I don’t have it in me to tell the dog off. I clip the lead on him.
We go up the path to the house. Fossil is very interested in the garden and sniffs around.
I ring the bell.
“Thank you,” I say to the man who answers. “I’m afraid he’s a rescue dog and we’re still working on training.”
“He’s a rescue dog and I’m a rescue boy,” Reuben pipes up.
The man gives us a puzzled look.
“That’s fine,” he says. “Glad to help. Our Maisie’s on heat and we keep her in, but she has a string of suitors.”
We turn to go, with Fossil tugging at the lead.
Reuben skips beside me. “I think Fossil’s hungry, Mum.”
I almost stop in my tracks. A lump rises in my throat and I look across at Charlie.
He raises his eyebrows and smiles.
Reuben is right when he says he’s a rescue child. We adopted him six months ago and it’s been a steep learning curve since then.
We can’t be sure what Reuben went through before he came to us, and he has a lot of catching up to do in many areas.
We’ve spent months trying to gain his trust, and Fossil helped enormously. Reuben bonded with him much quicker than he’s bonded with us.
But Reuben has just called me Mum for the first time, and despite the dreadful day yesterday and the horrible night I feel as light as air.
“Let’s get home,” I say. “So we can feed this dog.”