The following is a story based on and takes place after the events in S.E. Eaton’s novel,“The Christmas Beagle”.
Frog to a fly, Pete swiped his hand through the salty breeze and snagged Alex’s floppy red hat. Alex looked back in alarm and sighed. She made a great fuss to reposition her easel bag without disturbing her casted arm, and held out her uninjured hand.
Pete smiled. “I’ll carry it.” He dug his heels into the sand as the puppies pulled in opposite directions, each lured by their own scent trail.
“You really don’t have to,” she said. Her tone carried a careful balance between cool restraint and social warmth. “You have the puppies. And it’s my hat, I should carry it.”
Pete’s smile faltered. He searched for the right response, rejecting such ones as don’t be ridiculous, you broke your arm and I’m just trying to help, because those phrases had been checked off the list of things not to say to a broken-wristed Alex. She didn’t snap at him for saying them, no, but the gloss of ice on her demeanor had given Pete the message. There was something else in her voice and actions, too, something that birthed in Pete a beast, angry and prideful. In their several months of dating, Alex had picked up the habit of kissing Pete on the nose. At first, it was just sweet Alex being sweet Alex.
But the last time she had done it, it hit Pete—wrong. Alex had always displayed loving gestures, the nose-tip kisses, caresses on his shoulder, nuzzles into the nape of his neck—but after what she went through, and after what he failed to do for her, the sweetness had become something else, making Pete wonder if that is what it had been all along. He had seen plenty of it during his homeless days from the ladies at the soup kitchen to recognize it when he saw it. It was humiliating. It was de-humanizing. It was pity.
Pete looked her in the eye with what he hoped she translated as utmost respect, washing any sign of a smile from his face, and angled his head in a little bow. “I don’t mind.” A beast roared inside of Pete. Its ferocity was a foreboding opponent to Pete’s gentility, and it demanded from him nourishment. If you don’t let me carry this hat, said the beast, you might as well castrate me here and now, you stubborn woman!
Alex’s eyes took on a gray hue that put the clouds above them to shame. “Thanks,” she said. She offered a quick smile, one that did not meet her eyes.
Pete’s sigh was a whisper, swallowed by the wind–he hoped the glumness didn’t show on his face. What happened wasn’t his fault, of course. But even if it had been, little man, the beast taunted, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
The beast was cruel. It screamed at Pete remarks of ridicule, questioning in a taunting manner, are you even a real man? Think of the baby birds depicted in all too many of her paintings. Don’t you see? Alex only loves fragile things. Otherwise, she wouldn’t hold back. She’d call you out for what you are—and for what you are not. So, Pete, tell me…are you nothing but her baby bird? Sometimes, and this is what scared Pete the most, the beast threatened to not wait for the answer.
Alex turned around and charged forward. Pete tucked her hat under his arm, wondering what would happen if he were to ‘accidentally’ squish its woven form. Oh, you flattened my hat? No, Sweetheart, it’s alright—I prefer it this way. You’ve improved it, actually! Pete scowled and scolded himself for the thought—this wasn’t about him—it was about Alex, and after what happened to her, rightly so.
After they passed the brambles, Pete waited for Alex to set up shop. A fierce tug from the pups slowed his pace. The sudden jerk on the leash spiked a sharp incline in his irritation level. He stopped and looked over his shoulder, to Slug, Alex’s puppy, who was hunched by a chunk of driftwood. He allowed Alex to continue on while Slug did his business. Chance, Pete’s roly-poly trouble-maker, sniffed at a rock while he waited for his brother to finish. The rock lost the pup’s interest soon enough; Chance turned his head towards the ocean waters and whimpered.
“You’ll get your chance, Chance,” Pete said.
While Slug threw sand over his pile, Pete looked up and saw Alex had come to a stop, several yards ahead, away from most of the other beach patrons. He broke into a slow jog, a frustrating pace for the pups, who, given the chance, would more fly than run, scarcely touching the sand as they zoomed across it. Alex took great care as she set up her easel. Pete shook his head. Her motions were too cautious—too planned out, too glazed with perfection. The idea of kicking the easel to the sand overwhelmed him. He was certain the infernal thing could stand up to a beating.
He kept his distance from her—close enough so she wouldn’t feel abandoned, but far enough as to not crowd her while she fought to enter ‘the zone’. While the beast craved the indulgence of what it swore to be the truth, Alex’s success, for Pete, was a stronger craving yet. It was important for Alex to paint the ocean, and Pete knew why—because like any other massive body of water, she feared it. She had made plans to swim in it just as soon as her cast came off, but first, she had to paint it, to help her wrap her head around it.
Pete glanced towards the brush, where on the edge of which a man in a floral shirt stood, barbequing something that made Pete’s mouth water. Kids ran around him, shrieking with delight as a woman smoothed sunblock on her arms.
With a heave, Pete plopped to the sand and offered the pups more slack on their leashes. Chance tottered along the undulating ground like a newborn colt while Slug sniffed towards Alex’s direction, whimpering and cocking his head.
Pete frowned and pulled Slug in to his arms. “Sorry, boy,” he said, rubbing his velvety ears, the tips of which were peppered with sand granules. “Mom’s busy right now.” He smirked. “Do something inspiring—maybe she’ll paint you.” Slug turned his soulful eyes up towards Pete, his mouth pulled into a stoic line. “Such a good boy,” Pete said. Slug bathed his fingers in slow, loving kisses.
Chance shouted a playful bark. Pete chuckled and watched as his puppy crouched, wiggled his tail, shook his bum and grinned, at what, Pete didn’t know, until he looked up and saw a boy, about seven years of age, pausing from his diligent work on a sand castle.
The boy, whose face was round with youth and bursting with glee and dimples, beamed at Chance. “Hiiiii, Puppy!”
Pete smirked. “You can pet him, if you want.” Slug’s tail went into a hesitant wag as he peeked around Pete’s torso at the boy.
The boy’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open as he pointed at Slug. “…Two! Two puppies! Aw! They’re so cute!” He crouched down next to Slug and permitted the pup to smell his fingers.
“He’s on the shy side,” Pete said. He smiled. “But, he seems to like you.”
“What’s his name?” the boy said.
“That one is Slug,” Pete said. The boy’s face went to wrinkles as he chewed on this information.
Chance nosed his way into the boy’s arms, making him laugh. “And that’s Chance,” Pete said. He smirked. “He’s not so shy—not at all, in fact.” The boy scratched Chance’s forehead; the pup grinned and closed his eyes, sinking into the euphoria.
Pete saw as Alex looked over her shoulder, one corner of her mouth lifting in admiration. Her eyes soon fell downcast again, however, and she turned back around to the canvass.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” The caw-like cry turned Pete’s head and launched his stomach up into his throat. Behind him and to his left, a shriveled figure sat hunched on the ground, her toes on the receiving end of Chance’s kisses. “GET!” she shouted. “…FILTHY, DISGUSTING BEAST!”
Pete shortened Chance’s slack and stationed the puppies close to him. He angled his head towards the woman “Sorry!”
The woman’s face puckered and her eyes turned mean as she looked up at Pete. “Keep that mongrel away from me!” the woman said. “Who in their right mind brings a dog to a beach, anyway? People have a right to enjoy a proper outing without fearing an attack! You stupid man!” She spat out the last word like an attempt to rid her mouth of poison.
Pete cringed, took in and released a deep breath, and forced what he hoped was an apologetic smile. “Yeah, I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He focused his attention on the ocean, angling his body away from her.
But the boy regained Pete’s attention, grinning as he pointed to Alex. “Is she your girlfriend?”
“Yep, that she is,” said Pete.
“She’s pretty,” the boy said.
Pete smiled. “Yeah, she is.”
The boy smirked, fidgeted and entangled his arms together. “Do you looove each other?”
Pete swallowed hard. “Yeah…” He gave a nervous, light chuckle. “I hope so.”
“Do you love her?”
Pete inclined his head in a deep nod. “Very much.”
“Well,” the boy said, “If she kisses you, it means she just likes you.” He held up a finger. “But…! If she stares at you a lot with kinda a weird look in her eyes….? It means she loves you.”
Pete’s lips took on a curve. “Unless it means I have a booger hanging from my nose, huh?”
He anticipated the boy’s giggle, but a shadow fell over his face. Austere, he shook his head. “No. If it’s a booger, she’ll pick it for you. …That’s real love.”
Pete’s shoulders quivered as he chuckled. The boy smiled in a hesitant fashion, as though he were unsure as to why what he said merited laughter. Chance pulled towards the ocean while Slug jumped up towards the boy. Pete, seeing his rascally pup was about to scratch the boy’s legs, tugged him away from him. And the old woman noticed, too.
“Stupid, ugly mutts!” she yelled, her tone a vicious warble. “…Attacking children! I’ve half a mind to call the police!” Pete cast her a wary look. She was at the ready, as if to pounce. She stuck out a gnarly finger towards Pete. “Listen here, you stupid, power-hungry man. If they bite him,” she said, nodding to the boy, “you’ll be put into prison, and your dogs—” She dragged her finger across her throat. “…Put to death!”
Pete’s brow went into a deep burrow. “Listen, Ma’am, all due respect, my dogs and I have a right to be here, too. I’ll move, though, for your sake.” He took several long strides away from her and pulled the pups with him. To his alarm, the boy followed him.
The boy frowned and dug in his ear with his finger as he sent hesitant glances towards the old woman—his grandmother, or perhaps great-grandmother, Pete guessed. “She’s cranky,” the boy said.
Pete shrugged. “Some people just don’t like dogs.”
The pups pulled back toward the old woman. Pete frowned. “Chance, no, no…come on, Slug, this way….”
The boy shielded his eyes from the sun and aimed his puzzled expression towards Pete. “Why’s his name Chance? That’s a kid’s name, not a dog name. There’s a kid in my class and his name is Chance.”
Pete cast a glossy-eyed look to Alex’s back and hinted at a smile. “Because,” he said. “I’ve been given a lot of chances throughout my life. This little guy is no exception.”
“Oh,” he said. He pointed to Slug. A wry grin spread across his face. “I think I know why his name is Slug!”
Pete’s lips twitched. “Oh, yeah? Why do you think?”
The boy’s eyes lit up mirth. “Because he likes to eat slugs!”
Pete chuckled. “Well, no, that’s not quite the reason. The reason my girlfriend named him Slug is because of how he lies down, when he’s bored or tired.” He held out his pointer and middle fingers and stuck them outwards. “Like this, with his legs sticking out behind him.”
“Slugs don’t have legs,” the boy said.
“You’re right,” Pete said. “I suppose that’s just how Alex—my girlfriend—saw him. He reminded her of a slug, lying flat on the ground. Sometimes he even oozes of the couch like that—very slug-like, don’t you think?”
The boy stuck his fingers out, just like Pete did, and tittered. “That’s so weird! Hey, Chance…do you lie like this?” Chance panted and dug into the sand. The boy looked up at Pete. “Can you make him do it?”
“Uh….not…really, no,” Pete said. “…He pretty much does it when he wants to do it. There are too many interesting scents to keep him busy here. So he won’t be lying down anytime soon.”
“Oh,” the boy said. He looked out at the horizon and twiddled his thumbs, looking like he was wrestling with another thought. He looked back to Pete. “Do Chance and Slug like to swim?”
Pete show his brow upwards in thought, but the old woman’s caw of an utterance served to interrupt him. “Stop talking to strangers!” she yelled. “That’s how little boys get hurt!”
The boy looked up in alarm, grabbed his plastic shovel, and turned his attention back to his castle. Pete averted his eyes from the woman and meandered away from her and the boy. Chance and Slug sniffed at the air, and catching Alex’s scent, whimpered and pulled Pete towards where she painted. Pete groaned, pulled his lips to one side in a lackluster scrunch, and let the puppies lead the way.
He stood parallel to Alex but gave her wide berth, keeping the puppies close enough to see her but not close enough to jump on her legs. Though she kept her eyes on her half-painted canvas, he was certain she was aware of his presence. Her hand shook as she held the paint-dipped brush up to fill a miniscule part of what Pete supposed was a flower. She muttered under her breath and with great agitation, she flipped loose strands of her hair over her shoulder. This action left a streak of red on her cheek from her paintbrush. The result made her look, somehow, more beautiful. …More Alex.
And Pete could tell, by the way Alex glared at the canvas, she hated it. She hated the half-formed figures, the globs, streaks and curlicues of color. She saw a mess. She saw what the scum pawn shop owner/art dealer had seen. Recalling the jerk’s words now made Pete’s hands clench tighter around the pup’s leashes.
“It’s nice,” he had said. “Let’s take a closer look, huh?” Alex had grinned at Pete, and his heart burst with joy, seeing the look of excitement on her face. The dealer set Alex’s work on the counter, cleared his throat and hummed as he took a fair amount of time to survey the piece. From there, he wound back around the counter and crossed his arms as he leaned against the glass display. He sighed. “There’s just one problem, Sweetheart.” A tiny furrow met Alex’s brow, and Pete’s jaw twitched in alarm. …Sweetheart?
But they continued to listen, even as the dealer motioned Alex closer to him. She blinked several times and stared at him, not budging a muscle.
“I don’t think they make magnets strong enough for me to hang it on my fridge.” He bobbed his head from side to side in a mocking fashion. “Plus, you’ll have to take it up with my three-year-old for the real estate. But if you’re serious, I can set up a meeting.” He smirked.
And that’s when Pete’s sweet Alex drove her fist into the man’s cheekbone. …And how she ended up with a cast. ….And how the both of them were banned from the establishment. Not a huge loss, on their part.
A fire, bigger and fiercer than the beast, roared in Pete’s belly as he replayed the story in his head. He clenched his jaw and looked at the sand. Though it countered his true nature, in that moment, he had wanted to punch the guy’s lights out himself, but he wouldn’t have dared undermine what Alex had done. And as the dealer shouted sexist obscenities at Alex as they rushed from the shop, Pete turned back and glared at him. A cruel smile formed on his face as he gestured to the man’s injured face. “…Her best work yet, I’d say.”
But as they sat in the emergency room lobby, Pete felt ashamed. Part of him agonized over not being the one to hit the jerk, while another part lamented any measure of violence was used at all. And yet he still commended Alex for it.
“You were great,” he said. “Couldn’t have done it better myself.” The words felt forced. And as she chuckled and kissed the tip of his nose, he felt nothing short of deflated. The action seemed to say don’t you worry about me, you darling little man. I know you’re too weak to protect me.
The nose-tip kiss also brought to mind all the times over the past half a year, when Alex had been the one to step up for Pete, to protect Pete, to fix Pete. And those thoughts intermixed with a series of nightmares that had plagued him for years. …Seeing the homeless man being killed….and the alternate ending his subconscious spat at him—Pete being arrested and blamed for the murder, all due to his own shady criminal past. Alex had been there to hold him, to assure him he was a good person. Good person…? The beast smirked. Sure, sure…just so long as you never actually believe it to be true. If you really had killed that man, she would adore you all the more. She worships your afflictions and yawns at your pathetic attempts at altruism. You are her hobby, little man.
Alex heaved a sigh, glanced more towards Pete without actually looking at him, then with jerky motions, balanced her pallet between her jutted out thigh and easel ledge.
“I can hold that for you,” Pete said.
“Got it,” Alex said. She re-tied her hair up into her pink elastic band. The pallet slipped toppled to the sand.
Her hair half bun, half cascading tresses, Alex abandoned her mission. “Damn it!”
Pete reached to grab the pallet for her. Slug leaped forward as well, scraping his paws down Alex’s bare legs. Alex cried out; Pete didn’t know whether to go for the pallet or the pup, but in his confusion, his brain prevented an important thought from fully forming: there was one less leash in his hand than was supposed to be there.
Alex, pallet back in her hand, let it drop again to the sand. She pointed towards the ocean. “SLUG…!”
Pete’s stomach flew up into his throat. He looked and sure enough, Ale’x shy little guy was halfway to the waves, his ears slick back against his neck. “YES, IT IS!” he shouted, half angry, as though Alex were to blame for his carelessness. And, the beast reasoned with subconscious fury, truly she was.
The two of them were neck in neck for a time as they hightailed it after Slug, shouting his name all the way. Chance breathed an ecstatic pant as he zoomed across the sand with Pete. Alex stopped ankle deep and took Chance’s leash as Pete thrust it into her hands. Chance swam out into the waves. Pete sprinted and dove after him. The current fought him, but he pumped his arms, battling to keep his head above the water.
“SLUG!” Pete darted around in every direction. He saw no sign of the puppy. The waves tossed him without mercy and threw his body out further into the deep.
A white-dipped tail sent a jolt of adrenaline so powerful Pete felt he could fly. A wave crashed in over his head, and sputtering, he spotted Slug as he emerged from the glassy surface. Pete dared the ocean to defy him as he thrashed through the waves towards the puppy.
When he was close enough, Pete scooped Slug into one arm, rejoicing at his conscious state. Slug screamed out a series of high-pitched baroos and scratched Pete’s shoulder as, to Pete’s horror, he attempted to dive back into the waves. Salt water stung Pete’s throat as he struggled to keep ahold of the puppy. Pete hooked his fingers onto his collar and lifted Slug high above the waters as another wave assaulted them.
Then horror stuck Pete as he saw something of utmost bewilderment—a small, flaccid human arm, as it jutted out from the wave’s center. Slug yipped and scrambled in Pete’s grasp, scraping his claws against him. Pete winced and prayed as he, with a wiggling Slug tucked under one arm, pumped the other arm and kicked like hell towards where he saw the arm—the owner of which, Pete was certain he knew. But the arm and any trace of the rest of the body disappeared before Pete arrived, but below, his kick was met with an obstruction. He looked down and saw only darkened water, but secured Slug underneath his arm, sucked in a breath, and sank beneath the surface. He groped at the water and clasped his hands around a tuft of hair. With an iron grip, Pete yanked the hair and its owner upwards and the three of them emerged to the surface. He got a better grip on the limp body and with horror looked at the unresponsive face—it was the boy.