Same As It Ever Was
You are laying down on your Grandmother’s couch. It is plaid, with stripes in shades of mustard and rust. The lint pearls along its surface scratch and cling to you. You can feel its wooden skeleton through its thin stuffing. It smells like mildew. You don’t remember it making your skin crawl when you were a child, although you know it hasn’t changed since. Only you have. Still, it’s better than a wooden church pew.
The soft clicking of claws on linoleum tile echoes out from the hall, and after a moment, a wet nose sniffs at your bare feet. The nose belongs to Barley, your grandmother’s dog. Barley, like the couch, is tattered and tinged with age. You remember at one point his curled fur bounced like sheep wool. Now, it dripped from his thin frame like algae from wet wood. When his smell reaches you, your entire face becomes stiff. His hot, panting breath hits your senses in a humid fog. His nose touches your foot again. He wants to climb onto the couch with you.
“No.” You tell him. The sound of your voice makes him wag his thin tail. He pads forward and licks your hand before you can avoid it. You pull that hand away and push him firmly when he tries to approach. He does not leave, but sits instead. You stare at him, and he stares back silently. His black eyes are shining buttons peering out from yellowing fur.
“Why are you here?” he asks you. His voice is soft and worn like leather. The question hits you harder than the sound of it.
“Grandma wanted me to visit for after… After the service. Are you talking?”
“Yes, I am,” Barley tilts his head, as if to let a thought roll forward. “When you arrived, it took me a moment to recognize you,” His words leave a bruise. “Then you took off your shoes, and I remembered. I remembered your laugh, your eyes. I remembered your hand beneath the kitchen table, sneaking me your carrots.”
“You didn’t remember me when I first came?”
Barley lowers himself onto the floor and stretches. “You haven’t been here in years.”
The way he states this fact blisters you. “I’ve been busy. I’m not a child anymore. I can’t visit like I used to.”
“When you were a toddler, you always came into the house with a cloud of sunscreen and sweet ice clinging to your skin. Your fingers were sticky and liked to yank on my ears. When you could walk, you smelled like fresh cut grass, ketchup and glue. Before bed, you would tell me secrets and stories of daycare beneath a blanket fort. Then, when you started school, it was rare for you to greet me without crayons in your pockets and bubble gum on your breath. You liked to put me in hats, tie capes around my neck, and place butterfly clips in my fur.”
As he speaks, something within you curdles. You think he is hurting you on purpose.
“How about now?” You ask him this in a stabbing way, that dares him to say what he has been building up to.
“Now, you are very clean. There is barely any scent there, apart from something chalky and unfamiliar.”
“Did you learn how to talk just to guilt trip me?”
Barley glances at the spare space by your legs on the couch. He lifts his paw to the very edge of the cushion. “Can I come up?”
“No.” You snap. You push his paw off. In your mind, you rationalize it— his white fur will ruin your black clothing.
“Is it because I’m old?”
You toss your hands up and let them fall onto your lap. “No Barley, its not because you’re old. I’m just not in the mood.”
“Your eyes are strange when you look at me, like I’m a snail inching across a sidewalk.”
“You are on two different medications for your heart. You limp after five minutes of walking. If you eat too much or too fast, you puke. If I look at you like you’re fragile, its because you are. If I act like you could die at any moment, its because you could.”
“I am not who I used to be. But I love scratches behind my ears and the warm spot next to you on the couch, same as ever.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Because being near you makes me sad. It’s painful.” There is a knot tightening in your throat. The stinging in your eyes has become a hot burn. You focus on breathing and ignore the cold air on your wet cheeks.
“Am I hurting you? I’m sorry.” Barley slumps onto the ground, and sighs deeply.
“It’s not your fault,” You insist. You voice is wavering and fighting for balance.
“I missed you.”
You sit in silence. There is a ticking from a grandfather clock somewhere in the house that finds its way into the quiet moment. You look at Barley, and he is resting his head between his paws and he is staring blankly ahead. It is something he has done a million times before, when he is denied the food on your plate or the sock on your foot. He must be doing this on purpose, you think. He’s trying to remind you of the person you once were, the person that didn’t understand what time does to the people you love. The person that only knew today and not tomorrow.
You watch him, stubbornly refusing to give in, because you know that you, him, and the couch, are fleeting— Seconds keep moving with every breath you take, bringing you closer to the last and further from the first. You watch him, this creature that lives only by his senses, and regret ever letting him burrow into your heart, just so he could leave an empty void there when he finally leaves.
So you regret loving him?
For a moment, you think it is Barley’s voice saying this, but instead it comes from a quiet corner within yourself.
No, You reply. Of course not. You could not imagine life without him, or who you would have become without him. No, You reply, without hesitation. You do not regret loving him, despite all the pain that love is causing you now. I wouldn’t trade the moments I spent loving him for anything in the world. You decide, and now you are filled with a new pain— the pain of letting moments pass without him close to you.
You shift your legs and pat the empty spot on the couch cushions. Barley does not react.
“Barley,” You say, softly. Your heart is held in a tight fist.
Finally, he perks up, and his eyes are bright and new. “Come up.”
Barley’s tail is wagging, and slowly, he lifts from the ground. You help him get his back legs up when he struggles to find the momentum. Soon his head is on your stomach, and your fingers find the perfect spot behind his ear to scratch.
“I don’t think about the future,” Barley whispers to you. “I only think of moments like this, and how to have as many as possible.”
You close your eyes. The rise and fall of your chest match his. Before you drift to sleep, you breath in, and memories fill the spaces within you.
Robyn Miller (she/her/hers) is a Canadian writer based in Burlington Ontario, and is a recent graduate of Sheridan College’s Creative Writing & Publishing program. She currently has two stories published, one in the 27th issue of the Minola Review and in the first issue of Pastel Pastoral magazine. She loves psychological themes within fantasy settings, and any movie by Don Bluth from the 80s. She also loves to crochet, and can be found in the midst of a sweater and a cup of tea whenever she’s avoiding her responsibilities/deadlines.