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What Wags the World

Sarah Pinsker is author of the novelette "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind," winner of the 2014 Sturgeon Award and 2013 Nebula finalist, and the short story "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide," 2014 Nebula finalist. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lightspeed, and in numerous anthologies, including Accessing the Future and Long Hidden. This is her fifth story to appear in Daily Science Fiction. She lives in Baltimore with her wife and their elderly-but-spry spaniel. Find her online at sarahpinsker.com and twitter.com/sarahpinsker.

They have him mislabeled as "mixed-breed" at the shelter, but you recognize him for what he is. More importantly, he recognizes you. The other dogs are doing tricks and throwing themselves at the people walking past. They're begging for attention. He hangs back, waiting, but when you pass his enclosure he gets up to leave as if it's already decided.
He's too arthritic to jump into your car, so you lift him. He sits on the back seat and braces against the movement. You open the window partway since there's no danger of him jumping out. He leans his head on the sill and breathes deeply, taking in the smells. At home, you count his fatty tumors, feed him supplements for his joints. He leans his white head against your leg. He's too deaf to hear that you're calling him Merlin, Merle for short.
He rewards you in the ways that only an old dog can. When you get home, you run your hands over his sides to let him know you're there. He lifts his head from his bed, then sighs and lowers it again, his tail thumping a gentle welcome. He sleeps on your feet while you watch television, his soft snores a reassurance.
He's with you for a year before you're sure you're right about him. The tumors shrink to the size of pebbles, then they're gone overnight. The cataracts disappear a few months later. One day, when you say his name, he turns his head to the sound of your voice.
You start to take long walks together, then longer. His limp smoothes out. The stiffness gives way to his true gaits: a surefooted trot, a headlong gallop. On a June hike, he darts into the brush and emerges soft-mouthing a sparrow. You take it from him, praise him, release it unharmed. This is the first of many.
Over the next few years, he is your most constant companion. He's at the door the second you arrive home. You hear his tail thumping before your key is even in the lock. He exhausts himself chasing squirrels and birds and sticks, returns to your side panting and self-satisfied. You take him to the lake and he launches himself from the boat dock like a missile. You buy a ball-flinging device because the arthritis in your own elbow no longer allows you to throw as far as he would like.
He hears everything now, his ears pricking up to catch the neighbor's dog barking and the cardinals in the holly by the back door. You don't teach him tricks, but he has a few of his own: his chin on your knee while you're eating and he wants to remind you he's there to help you with anything you can't finish; the unstealthy belly crawl from across the room that never ceases to cheer you when you're feeling down.
Twelve years after you adopted him, he begins to lose mass. His paws look larger in proportion to his body. He gets leaner and leaner, until he is all angles, all legs and ears and eyes and smile. He loses track of his limbs when he runs, skids out on corners, slides into walls, all with joyous abandon. Awake, he's a coiled spring, an embodiment of potential energy. His appetite and curiosity are boundless. He sniffs old friends as if meeting them for the first time. He rediscovers smells and tastes and sounds he has known for years.
He gets smaller, softer. He craves contact. When you sit on the floor he climbs into your lap and nips at your ears and fingers, then curls into a ball and falls asleep there. He sleeps more than he has for years. You don't mind. You appreciate naps more than you used to.
In his final weeks, you bottle-feed him. His eyes squeeze shut and stay that way. The last night he's with you there's a flare in the dark bedroom, then a spark, and then he's gone, still too soon.
There's no body to bury, so you hike to the lake and sit on the boat dock and skip stones across the water. You will them back to your hand, but it doesn't work that way for you.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 16th, 2015

Author Comments

This story came from a Codex Writers flash prompt, which asked us to invent a new species of animal; I invented an unusual line of dogs instead. I have an old dog who thinks he is a puppy. He sat at my feet and consoled me while I wrote this.

- Sarah Pinsker
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