Last week’s story was kind of horrifying, so today I’m going to counteract that with something kind of sweet. I always love a dog story! Recently published in WPaD’s Furry Tales anthology.
The old man placed another log on the campfire.
“You kids ready for a story?”
“Yes!” Kylie and Joel chorused together.
Every summer, his daughter-in-law Laura brought the grandchildren on weekends for a backyard campout. The kids got to sleep in a tent and enjoy fireside stories, just like they’d done with their father. Since loss of her husband, a Marine, Laura tried to maintain a connection with his side of the family. The old man appreciated the effort she made. The kids enjoyed his stories and he enjoyed telling them, and boy, he had a lot of stories.
“Get comfortable, ‘cause tonight I got a great story for ya. This one’s about Chernobyl Charlie.”
“Wait!” Kylie ran to the tent to grab her blanket. She returned and nestled in her lawn chair with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “Okay, I’m comfortable now.”
Her brother rolled his eyes. “Ok, are you ready now? I want to hear the story.”
The old man began,
“There once was a boy, we’ll call him Nathan. This boy only wanted one thing for his entire life: a dog. He didn’t want anything else, not ever.
Every year, his parents would ask him what he wanted for Christmas or his birthday, and his answer was always the same:
‘I want a dog!’ he’d say.
And every time, the answer would be the same: ‘No’.
It wasn’t that his parents were mean, or didn’t want him to have a dog. It was just that they lived in an apartment, and weren’t allowed pets in the building, other than fish or birds. Birds gave him the creeps and goldfish just weren’t the same. Fish were boring. They just sat in a bowl. You couldn’t take them for a walk or pet them or play ball with them.
But one year, the year he turned twelve, Nathan’s life changed forever.
His father had started a new job a year ago, and was making more money. Enough money that they could finally buy a house. A whole house! With its own yard and everything! Most importantly, there was a fenced area for a dog! This year, when Nathan’s parents asked what he wanted for his birthday, the answer was yes. He could have a dog.
His mother agreed to the dog on one condition: they would adopt, not shop. No pet stores or fancy breeds; they would find a shelter dog that needed a home. Nathan was fine with that. Any dog would be a great dog, and he would love it with all his heart.
They registered with the SPCA and a bunch of other rescue groups, looking for a dog that would be a good fit for their family. One day, Nathan’s mother called him to look at something.
She was sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop open to some website.
Nathan took a look over his Mom’s shoulder to see what she was looking at. The screen had a picture of a group of dogs on it.
‘What’s this?’ he asked.
‘There are puppies available for adoption, and you’ll never guess from where. Chernobyl!’ she told him.
‘Isn’t that place like, radioactive or something?’ he said.
His mother explained, ‘According to this, hundreds of dogs roam the woods in the exclusion zone near Chernobyl. They are the descendants of pets that were left behind in the evacuation. Some of the puppies are being brought to the U.S. for adoption. The adoptions will be done through the SPCA, and we’re already registered with them. We can ask to be put on a wait list for one of these puppies if you want.’
It sounded pretty cool, but Nathan had some concerns. He asked his mom, ‘Is that even safe? Like are they mutants or anything?’
‘No, not at all,’ she told him, ‘Many of the dogs are perfectly healthy. No radiation sickness, and they are carefully vetted before they are put up for adoption.’
Nathan was sold. ‘Cool! I want a radioactive puppy!’
‘And if we don’t get one, we will find another shelter pup that needs us, agreed?’ his mom said.
‘Okay!’ Nathan said.”
“What happened that they had to evacuate, Grandpa?” Kylie asked.
“It was a meltdown!” Joel said. “We learned about it in school. Some kind of power plant in Russia. It went nuclear. Like, psssh!” He made a sound that mimicked an explosion and motioned with his hands.
“Well, it didn’t actually blow up, but it was really bad. It happened back in the eighties. They used some pretty dangerous stuff to make electricity in the old days. The power plant at Chernobyl had a bad accident. All the land around it became poisoned from radiation, and the people had to evacuate. The place is still deserted today. You can see pictures on the internet of all the empty buildings. There’s even a deserted amusement park. And nobody can go there even now, because it’s still radioactive.”
“But what about all the animals?” Kylie asked.
“A lot of them got left behind to fend for themselves. Some died, and some just went wild. There was still a working power plant there, thirty years later. And the workers started feeding some of the wild dogs that were running around. And, as dogs do, some of them became friendly again. Eventually, some rescue organizations got wind of it and started to capture the dogs. The wilder ones got checked by vets, fixed so they couldn’t have any more puppies, and then set free again. And they started catching the puppies and finding homes for them.”
The old man took a sip of his coffee, which had gotten cold, and continued the story.
“June twenty-fifth was a date Nathan never forgot, because it was the happiest day of his life. School was out for the summer, but most importantly, the time had come to bring home the new puppy. Surprisingly, their application for a Chernobyl pup had been accepted and they were minutes away from meeting their new family member. Nathan and his mother paced the waiting room of the SPCA, too excited to sit down.
They didn’t know much about the puppy, other than it was a male, approximately four months old, and would grow to be a medium to large-sized dog. The breed was anyone’s guess, but it was said that some of the wild dogs had been running in wolf packs, so the puppy might even have had some wolf in it.
A woman came from the back room, holding a wriggling bundle of black-and-white fur in her arms. When the puppy saw the new people, he squirmed away from the woman. He ran to Nathan, slipping and sliding on the floor on huge, clumsy feet. The puppy whined and wagged his tail so hard his whole body wagged. He licked Nathan’s face, covering it with dog slobber, but Nathan didn’t mind.
‘I’m going to call you Charlie, and we’re going to be best friends!’ he told the dog.”
“Oh!” Kylie squealed. “Just like –”
“Will you shut up and stop interrupting!” her brother said.
“That’s ok. She’s just excited. Right sweetie?” The old man gave Kylie a knowing wink.
“Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Charlie. He named the dog Charlie, and they were the best of friends from that day forward. They were inseparable.
To most people, Charlie seemed like an average puppy; he liked to chew, had boundless energy and loved Nathan more than life itself. As far as Nathan was concerned, Charlie was exceptional. He was bright and obedient, and easy to train.
Charlie loved to fetch, and his favorite toy was the Frisbee. After he had shredded several regular Frisbees, Nathan bought him a special chew-proof one designed for dogs. Every day they walked to the dog park, rain or shine, to play fetch. Charlie didn’t really need a leash, but Nathan put one on him to and from the dog park to keep the neighbors happy.
One particularly blustery autumn day, Nathan threw the Frisbee and a gust of wind caught it, sending it sailing over the fence and onto the busy street next to the park. Charlie was in hot pursuit. Without missing a beat, he leaped over the fence – a six-foot-high chain link fence it was – and dashed into the traffic. Nathan didn’t have time to wow over the amazing feat of fence-jumping he’d just witnessed – he had to get his dog.
He dashed through the gate, shouting, ‘Charlie! Stop!’ but Charlie was on a mission.
Nathan was too late. The driver of the truck couldn’t possibly have stopped in time, even if he had seen Charlie.
It happened in slow motion, to Nathan’s eyes. The big eighteen-wheeler mowed Charlie down and ran over him, first with the front wheel, and then both sets of wheels on the trailer. He watched in horror as Charlie was flung like a rag doll from one set of dual wheels into the path of the second set.”
“No!” Kylie cried. “You didn’t tell us he was going to die! I don’t like this story.” She looked like she was going to cry.
“Shh! Don’t interrupt!” Joel hissed.
“Don’t worry, it gets better,” the old man assured her.
“Anyhow, there Charlie was, lying in the road, just a limp bundle of black-and-white fur. Nathan’s knees felt weak. He wanted to collapse, but he willed himself to stay standing. He wasn’t going to leave Charlie out there in the traffic, even though he knew it was too late to save him. Tears streaming down his face, Nathan ran toward the scene of the worst horror imaginable.
He reached the edge of the road, and then the unthinkable happened.
Charlie stood up, shook himself off, and walked over to pick up the Frisbee from the street. He trotted happily over to Nathan, holding his head high in the air all proud-like. All he cared about was that he’d gotten the Frisbee. He knew he was a good boy.
Nathan checked him over, and he looked fine. Not a scratch on him, just black marks on the white part of his fur from the rubber tires. He rushed home to tell his parents, but they didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating, but they brought Charlie to the vet just in case.
Dr. Michaels found nothing wrong with him. No injuries of any kind. She explained to Nathan in a condescending way that the wheels of the truck had missed Charlie when the truck passed over him.
‘But what about those black marks in his fur?’ Nathan said. ‘That’s rubber from the tires. I saw the tires run over him.’
“That’s probably grease from the underside of the truck,’ Dr Michaels said. ‘See? That reinforces what I was telling you. The truck straddled him. The tires missed him. He’s one lucky dog.’
Nathan didn’t argue further, but he knew what he’d seen. The most important thing was, his best friend was okay.
Fall turned into winter. Charlie loved the snow as much as he loved everything else. He found fun in everything he did. He learned to ride a toboggan and tried to fetch snowballs. He discovered hockey, which Nathan and his friends played on the frozen pond. Charlie was an excellent goalie.
One day in the middle of a game, they heard screams. Nathan and his friends rushed to help, with Charlie racing alongside.
A crowd of kids were gathered around, and it turned out a small child had fallen into an ice fishing hole. Usually they’ll put some kind of barrier or safety cones to let skaters know there’s a hole, you know. But this jerk, whoever the fisherman was, had just left an open hole there.
The little boy had been skating with his mother. She had already called 911, but time was running out. The poor woman was in hysterics.
Nobody could reach the kid; the hole was too small and the kid had sunk too deep. By the time someone got there with something to cut the hole bigger, it would be too late. That little boy was a goner.
Charlie pushed through the crowd and slithered into the hole like an eel. Nathan wouldn’t have believed the dog would fit, but he did. But how was he going to get out? Now they had lost Charlie as well. Nathan peered into the depths of the hole, trying to get a glimpse of Charlie or the little boy, but saw only blackness. Minute after agonizing minute passed.
They heard sirens in the distance, but Nathan knew help wouldn’t get there in time.
There was still no sign of Charlie. More than five minutes had passed since he dove through the hole in the ice. Nathan started to think that this time Charlie wouldn’t be so lucky.
And then, he saw a glow under the water. The light grew brighter, and then Charlie surfaced, holding the collar of the little boy’s jacket in his teeth. The boys pulled the child out of the water and passed him to his mother.
Nathan helped Charlie climb out of the hole. The dog shook the water from his fur nonchalantly, as though he had just taken a fun little swim.
Nathan hugged him tight and told him what a good boy he was.
The paramedics arrived and performed CPR on the little boy and wrapped him in blankets, then carried him to the ambulance.
The boy survived, thanks to Chernobyl Charlie.
And then there was the time when Nathan was sixteen, and he took a camping trip with a few of his friends. And Charlie, of course. Charlie was a great camping buddy because he was also a night light. You see, he glowed with a soft greenish light when he was happy. All it took was a belly rub or a scratch behind the ears to turn the light on. Or telling him he was a good boy; that worked too.
So, on this camping trip, the boys hiked a ways into the wilderness, to a spot beside a nice little lake. They planned stay a couple of days and do some fishing. The first day, they caught a nice bunch of trout. They cooked a few over the fire for dinner, and packed the rest in ice in the cooler.
Well, it turned out, a bear had caught the scent of their fish. Late at night after the campfire had died down, the bear came into the camp to steal the fish. It was a big bear, too. A Grizzly. The boys had hung all their food in a tree, the way you’re supposed to when you’re camping, but this bear was determined. Mr. Grizzly smelled that food and wasn’t leaving until he found it.”
Kylie shivered and pulled the blanket more tightly around her. “This is scary.” She glanced over at the tent, where she and her brother would be sleeping that night.
“Don’t be a fraidy-cat. There aren’t any Grizzlies around here. Right Grandpa?” Joel said.
“Right. Don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe. I promise there are no Grizzlies here. Remember, the boys were high in the mountains, out in the wilderness.”
“What happened next?” Kylie asked.
“Well, the boys woke to the sound of the bear rampaging through the camp. And I’m not gonna lie, they were plenty scared. They had hung up the food, but not all of it. They had snack foods in the tent with them. A bear’s nose is sensitive enough to detect even a small amount of food. They didn’t have anything to use as a weapon. All they had was an axe, and it was beside the fire.
Charlie started growling. Nathan tried to shush him, but he wanted out of that tent something awful. He started tearing at the door of the tent until he found an opening in the zipper and forced his way through. He charged at the bear, barking and snarling like he’d lost his mind.
He chased the bear away from camp, and in the distance the boys could hear the sounds of a horrible fight – snarls, roars, branches breaking. Once again, Nathan thought his dog was done for.
A while later, Charlie returned. He was covered in blood but otherwise just fine. The boys were pretty shook up. They cut their trip short, packed up the camp and left as soon as it got light. On the hike back, they came across a gruesome sight on the trail. The remains of a large Grizzly bear. The bear had been ripped to shreds. Like it had gone through a meat grinder or something. One of the boys commented how lucky they were that the marauding bear had killed another bear instead of them.
Nathan knew that the bear hadn’t been killed by another bear.
Chernobyl Charlie just panted and smiled. He knew he was a good boy.”
“Time for bed, kids! Say goodnight to Grandpa!” Laura had joined them sometime during the part about the bear.
“But Mom! He’s not done the story yet!”
“I’m done for tonight. We’ll tell more stories about Chernobyl Charlie tomorrow.”
“Give Grandpa a hug.”
Kylie and Joel hugged their grandfather.
“Goodnight, Grandpa. Thanks for the story,” Joel said.
“What happened to Charlie? Like, did he live with Nathan forever?” Kylie asked.
“Well, you know, sweetie, dogs don’t live as long as we do, but I’m sure he had a good long life. Charlie was pretty special.”
After the children were tucked into their sleeping bags, Laura returned and sat next to the fire.
“You know, Nate, I wish you wouldn’t tell them scary stories before bed. Grizzly bears? Can’t you make up something a little, I don’t know… nicer?”
“What’s nicer than a dog that saves the day? Besides, it’s all true.”
“I mean, I know you believe it’s true, but seriously. It’s pretty far-fetched.”
“I promise I’ll tell them a ‘nice’ story next time, ok?”
“OK. Thank you.” She stood and gave him a hug. “You’re a good grandfather. I appreciate all you do for them.” With that she went into the house.
“Don’t mind her, Charlie,” Nate said to the old black-and-white dog that lay at his feet. “I know how special you are.”
Charlie thumped his tail on the ground and a soft greenish glow emanated from his body. He knew he was a good boy.
Copyright © 2018 Mandy White
Previously published in DysFictional 3 by Mandy White