The following is Part Two of a short story based on the novel “The Christmas Beagle”, by S.E. Eaton. For Part One of this story, click here.
Still gasping for breath, Pete looked for a glint of window glass from one of the hotels in the distance, and swam, hard, towards the shore. A wave besieged them—Pete swam harder. Slug, shivering and wide-eyed, looked to be in shock, but he was breathing. Knee-deep, Alex ran to meet them. “Oh my God!” she said. She took Slug into her arms, hugging him close as Pete trudged ashore and lay the unconscious body he toted on the sand.
Alex hurried after him and gestured towards the beach behind her. “A woman up that way called 911. Oh my God, oh my God….” She worked her fingers through Slug’s sodden fur, her vision locked on the boy as she muttered something, a prayer, perhaps.
Pete tilted the boy’s head back, leaned in close to his face and listened for any sign of breathing. “Get his grandma,” he said to Alex, baffled that the old lady wasn’t already present.
“…Right!” Alex said, darting off to where the old woman sat.
“Stay with me, kid,” Pete said, as he laced his fingers and started chest thrusts.
Another man approached, slowing his sprint as he arrived. “I’m a caretaker—I know CPR!”
So do I, Pete thought for a fleeting moment, but nevertheless he stepped aside. Sirens sounded in the distance as the man got to work on the boy. A small crowd had gathered—Pete hoped the people in it had the sense to give them some space.
“Where’s his parents?” someone said. “Anyone know who he is?”
Pete stared at the boy’s face, watching for any sign of alertness, ready to take over if the caregiver grew tired. A moment later the boy’s eyes fluttered, and he coughed, rolled over and vomited.
“There he is!” Pete said. The boy burst into tears, prompting the caregiver put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, Buddy!” said a woman from the crowd around them. “More help is on the way, and you’re alright! You’re alright, Honey! We’ll find your mommy and daddy, don’t worry!” The crowd closed in on the boy, and Pete felt it best to do his part to give him space by leaving.
He jogged to where Alex and the old woman were stationed, much to his confusion, in the same spot. The man in the floral shirt handed Chance to Alex; Pete assumed the man looked after Chance while Alex waded out into the waves as far as she dared.
Alex turned around and attacked Pete in a vice-grip hug. He smiled and squeezed her trembling frame. She pushed out a shuddering sigh. “You scared the crap out of me!” she said into his chest. Tears streaked her face as, after a long while, she pulled back. “The kid’s alright?”
“Seems so,” Pete said. He shrugged. “He came out of it. I kind of got pushed out, so—I mean, all that matters is that he’s fine, so….” He shrugged again.
“You’re the one who got him out of the water, though!” Alex said. “He’d be dead if it weren’t for you!”
Pete shrugged again and nodded. “I was lucky I could grab him. …Wasn’t easy.” He blew out a long, fatigued sigh, and bent over, resting his hands on his knees.
Alex frowned. “You okay?”
Pete nodded. “Just tired. That was intense.” He felt Alex’s hand caress the width of his shoulders.
The man in the floral shirt tipped his straw hat upwards and looked at Pete. “You alright?” He shook his head. “Boy, your gal here sure was scared for ya! Was glad to watch the pup for her! Glad to see your other pup’s alright! My wife called 911—the ambulance should be here any minute now!”
Pete frowned and nodded, still in an adrenaline-driven pant. “Pulled a kid to shore,” he said. “Think that’s what my dog was after. …Or her dog, I mean…” He gestured tiredly towards Alex.
“Yeah, the kid’s lucky you were there!” the man said. “…Ambulance should be here anytime, now.”
Pete glanced down to the old woman, who stared determinedly to the side, her chin stiff with pride. “Ma’am,” Pete said, “is that your grandson I just pulled from the water?”
The woman, her lips pinched, stared up at Pete with beady, cruel eyes. “He would have been fine if you had just left him alone. He’s a strong swimmer.” She pounded her chest with her fist. “Gets that from his grandma! Sturdy as a rock!”
Pete frowned. “Uh, Ma’am, I don’t think you realize what happened. Your grandson was drowning. An ambulance is on its way—”
The woman scoffed. “What good are doctors? What do they know? Nothing, that’s what! He doesn’t need any doctors. He’s a strong swimmer! He’ll be fine, you hear me? Men! Always taking over! Always so stubborn—so nosey!” She let her jowls hang and dropped her tone to a lower register, slow and dull, a mocking of intelligence. “Uh-DUH! How do you feel now, big strong macho man?”
Pete wondered if anyone would care if he kicked sand in her face. Instead, he took in an even breath and exhaled, measured and gentle. He was done speaking to this woman.
Alex, exchanged side glances with Pete, then, perhaps somewhat as a bid to focus on a new subject, scooped up Slug into her arms and nuzzled his sandy, wet neck. “You scared me so much, baby!” she murmured into his fur. She chewed her lip and looked at Pete. “Um…honey…? The man who ran to help…he shouted at me to stay with her….” Her voice was hushed. She nodded to the old woman. “I think maybe he’s her son.”
Pete frowned and keeping an eye on the boy in the distance, shook his head. “No, that doesn’t make sense—he didn’t act like he was related to the kid at all.”
Pete frowned as another boy, older, sprinted towards the near-victim. And the ambulance screamed as it tore down the beach towards the crowd, which cleared leading up to its arrival. “Who’s that?” Alex said, pointing to the older boy.
“No idea,” Pete said. “…Brother, maybe?”
The caregiver trudged back towards them, a wild look in his eyes. He returned to the old woman, looked at Alex and nodded. “Thanks for staying with her.”
“Sure thing, of course,” Alex said.
The caretaker looked to Pete. “You okay, man?”
Pete nodded and blew out a short, rough breath. “Tired…bewildered…but, yeah, just fine.”
The caretaker gave an appreciative laugh. “Yeah, I bet you are tired. That was epic, saving that little dude. I told one of the paramedics what you did. Don’t be surprised if you have a reporter knocking on your door tomorrow.” He grinned and clapped Pete’s back. “You’re a hero!”
“Pah!” the old woman said. “He’s no hero. Men aren’t heroes—they’re monsters!”
The man gave the old woman a side glance, and he smiled, small and not aimed at her.
“So…” Pete said, exchanging hesitant glances with Alex, “is she…I mean, I thought she was the kid’s grandma, but…she doesn’t seem to care that he almost died. …Who is she, exactly?”
The man took in a deep, noticeable breath and sighed. “Her name is Imogen. I understand your confusion.” He dropped his voice a considerable amount. “…She often assigns boys around his age as her grandson.”
“What do you mean, assign?” Pete said.
“Dementia,” Alex whispered. “…Right? Or is it Alzheimer’s?” Pete furrowed his brow.
The caregiver nodded. “Stage six dementia,” he said, his tone hushed. “I’ve been her caretaker for two years…name’s Robin.”
Alex smiled through her troubled expression. “Nice to meet you, Robin.”
“So—that kid wasn’t even her grandson?” Pete said. “I’ll be damned…I could have sworn he was. I don’t think I actually ever out-right asked if he was.”
“If you did,” Robin said, “she very well might have told you that yes, he was.”
“Seems like a dangerous place for someone with her condition,” Pete said. “She’s not fond of dogs—or people in general, really.”
“Actually, she does well here,” Robin said. “It subdues a lot of her episodes—therapeutic for her, her doctor says. And, to tell you the truth, her reaction to your dogs would have been at least three times as worse if she had met them in a different environment.” His lips went into a thin, tight line. “If she misses her beach time, it only makes matters worse.” He shrugged. “Being here takes her back to how things were before…before her life took an unexpected turn for the worse….” He paused for a moment. Pete wondered if he realized he had said too much. “Anyway,” he continued, “I watch her from somewhat of a distance, giving her plenty of space so she can just relax and enjoy the beach, but ready to jump in if something goes wrong. If I get too close I risk her flying into a rage—she hates all men, but she hates me in particular.”
Pete, flummoxed, disguised his noise of disbelief with an awkward chuckle. “…And you’re her caretaker?”
The man chuckled, his eyes showing this wasn’t the first time he had been asked that question. “She thinks it’s a man’s job to serve her. Except for polite conversation, she won’t let women caretakers near her. She says it isn’t their job to take care of her—they do enough of that at home, she says, waiting on their husbands and children.”
“It must be rough,” Pete said. “…Taking care of someone who hates you so much.”
“It can be hard at times,” the man said. He shrugged. “But I know it’s not really me she hates.”
“So, where is her grandson?” Alex asked. “Her actual grandson? All grown up, I would guess?”
The caretaker glanced to one side and frowned. “Gary—her grandson—he, um…he never got a chance to grow up. He was only seven when it happened. I—I’m not really at liberty to say much more….”
“No, of course not,” Alex said. She slipped her hand into Pete’s. “We understand.”
Slug gave slow licks to Pete’s arm. Alex took Chance’s leash; Chance jumped at Alex’s thighs and Pete stared at Imogen with sorrowful eyes.
“Does she have any family?” Alex asked.
“A daughter,” he said. “They don’t speak, but her daughter is the only ones who knows it.”
Unspoken words weighted the brackish air. Pete watched Alex as she secured wild windswept strands of her hair behind her ears. Slug wiggled in her arms, so she kissed the pup’s face and placed him onto the sand. She scooted in closer to Pete, fitting her body into his. Chance tugged on Slug’s ears with his teeth.
A siren’s whoop-whoop turned all turned their heads. Slug shook, provoking Alex to pick him up again, and Chance barked and pulled, relentless, on his leash. Pete held the leash taut as two squad cars came to a stop near them. Two officers emerged from the cars and approached. One tipped his hat to them while the other pulled a notepad out of her pocket.
“Afternoon,” the hat-tipper said. “Are you the fine folks who witnessed and assisted the drowning boy?”
“Yes, Sir,” Robin said. “I revived him, but this guy over here spotted him in the first place, pulled him out of the ocean.” The force behind his palm was strong as he clapped Pete’s shoulder several times.
“To be honest,” Pete said, “it wasn’t me.” He leaned down and ruffed up Chance’s shoulders. The pup growled and gave an impish bark. “It was this little guy—he swam out there in the first place, trying to get to the boy. He scratched me up trying to jump out of my arms just to get to him.”
A twinkle shone in the officer’s eyes. “You don’t say?”
“A hero canine,” the female officer said, a broad grin on her face. “We see it all the time, but it never gets old. Do you have a moment to talk about what happened? We just need a statement.”
Pete gave a weak smile. “Sure thing.”
“Officers!” Imogen said. Her caw made Pete jump. She lifted her bony finger and aimed it again at Pete. “Arrest that man! He tried to kill my grandson!” Pete froze. His already dampened hand went clammy. Alex gave it a squeeze.
Robin shook his head at the officers. “She has nothing to do with the boy. She thinks he’s someone else. I—better get her home.”
“Understood,” the hat-tipper said. “Just real quick before you go—you’re the one who revived the boy, correct?”
“Yes, Sir,” Robin said.
“What’s your name?” the female asked.
“Robin Abe,” he said.
“And can you give a brief statement of what occurred, from your perspective?” Pete looked to the side in distraction as Alex handed off the beagles to him. They pounced on each other; Slug, still shaken, did so half-heartedly.
“He tried to kill my grandson!” Imogen said. “Murderer! Murderer! Oh, God! Murderer!” It was a sob now, flecked with remorse and misery.
Robin furrowed his brow. “I’m sorry. I have to go. Can we—do this later?”
“Of course,” hat-tipper said.
Robin approached Imogen, got her to her feet, and the two walked towards the brush, with Imogen’s intermittent squawks of “murderer!”
Pete scratched the back of his head and looked determinedly away from the officers. He couldn’t bring himself to look either one of them in their discriminating, austere eyes. He let his gaze wander, waiting for one of them to speak. It was then he noticed Alex was missing. He spotted her, her easel in tow, as she followed after Robin and Imogen. Pete looked to the hat-tipper. “Hold on just one moment, please, I—“ He took several side and backwards steps, craning his neck to see what was going on. He saw Imogen had stopped in the middle of the brush, sat down, and stared into the distance. Robin, nearby, watched her.
“I was just wondering,” Alex called out to him, “if you need any help? I can…try to walk with her, if you want? Or I can wait with you, if you need to call someone to help?”
Imogen looked up at Alex. “Are you talking to me, Dear?”
“I was talking to your friend,” Alex said. “But I’ll talk to you, too, if you want.”
Imogen gave a dismissive wave. “Oh, I don’t have many friends, these days. They all went to work at the factory, after their husbands enlisted.”
“Sir?” the female cop said from behind Pete. He turned around and gave a weak half smile, sheepish. “Sorry. Just had to check on my girlfriend.”
“I completely understand, Sir,” she said. Pete glanced beyond her, to the squad cars. Hat-tipper got back into his driver’s seat. “I just need to get a statement, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, yeah,” Pete said. “About what happened, right?” She nodded. “Alright, well—my puppy here, Chance, darted out into the ocean. I chased after him, dove into the water. Took a while, but I found him. He tried to get away, though, and that’s when I saw the kid’s arm. I swam after him, grabbed him by the hair—he was under the water, just below me. Got everyone back to shore. I prepped him to do CPR but then that guy—Robin—showed up and took over. Said he knew CPR so I let him do it. I know it, too, but it’s been several years since I last took the class. Didn’t want to end up hurting the kid, or something, you know?”
He frowned in thought as she jotted his statement on her notebook. “I think Robin is still here, just down that path, if you wanted to talk to him, too.”
“Nah, he has his hands full,” she said. “We’ll stop by his place later.”
“Any word on how the boy is doing?” Pete said.
“Not sure,” she said. “We haven’t heard anything. But I’d like to personally thank, you Sir. You helped save a life today. You’re a hero.” In a swift, concise motion, she stuck out her hand to him.
Pete smiled and shook it. “Thank you.” An odd sensation overtook him. He never figured he’d be in a position where a cop would be thanking him—arresting him, sure—but thanking him? Can she see right through me? She could figure it out—it’s her job to know—just by looking at me, that I’m a…. As though she might be able to read his thoughts, he couldn’t bring himself to finish the statement. Broken, he thought. I’m broken. And you can’t justify arresting broken. He commanded his gaze upwards, but before he could look her in the eye, she nodded to him, turned around, and returned to her vehicle.
Pete continued towards the brush to catch up with Alex. When he saw her, his brow lifted. Next to Alex, standing with a C-curve to her back at the easel, was Imogen, a loaded paintbrush in her hand. She draped the bristles across Alex’s unfinished piece, adding a streak of violet across two darkened figures. It blended the undried paint on their faces together, but not as to suggest anything lovely or romantic, such as the couple’s togetherness; it was to Pete, in that moment, no more than a pock mark on an otherwise beautiful painting.
“You’re a good daughter, Deborah,” Imogen said as she caressed Alex’s hair. “I don’t understand why you don’t bring Gary around more.” She patted her hand. “You know I can babysit him anytime, Honey.”
Alex, looked to Robin with hesitance, and at his nod, she smiled at Imogen. “Maybe sometime, yeah. That’d be great…Mom.”
Imogen’s face lit up, revealing a spark of life beneath the shroud. The spark faded as quickly as it had come, though, and Imogen turned her face towards the gray sea. She became still, paintbrush still in hand. A squeak escaped her lips, its wizened tone tinged with remorse. A few tears streaked her cheeks.
Alex looked to Robin, who again, nodded and gestured. Pete watched Alex as she put her hand on Imogen’s shoulder. Imogen, looking helpless, nodded as if to say yes, this is what I need—I wish I could tell you, but please, just know that I need you to love me—always. Chance barked and Imogen jumped. Pete admonished and quieted the pup.
Imogen and Alex held each other in a gentle embrace. The sight was not without its sweetness, but it left a bitter taste in the beast’s mouth. The way she and Alex were entangled they looked to be almost one whole person, one body with two kindred spirits that had been floating through the universe together since forever first began. Whatever language Imogen spoke Alex was fluent in it. She was, in that eternal moment, Imogen’s rock, her healer—her hero. And as far as Imogen knew, her daughter.
With waves of shame that outshined the monstrous ocean, Pete sulked. Whatever solitude Imogen had found on the beach, Pete was certain he had tainted it. It was Pete’s unwanted pastime; he chose it but once and it chose him for eternity. Always the messer-upper. Always the besmircher of life’s sanctity. And though he tried now to be a good man, he feared—and the beast insisted—it was not affection he earned from Alex, but pity.
His scowl deepened. Regret hit him, hard, for not being, although he didn’t fully understand his desire to be—the one to comfort Imogen. Because of what he was—a man—he couldn’t. …And what was worse, he let Robin be the one to perform the CPR on the boy. He should have done it. He should have stepped up, but instead, he froze, like a useless, selfish, broken coward. His gaze shifted to the ground. Not really the point, Pete. A kid almost died. Who cares who saved him?
Embittered, he looked away from Alex and Imogen, and searched for anything to distract him from his thoughts. He caught sight of Alex’s painting—and in one fell swoop, it clutched his heart. The beast cried, not a roar, but a feeble whimper—pathetic and small. Before, he had been too focused on the violet swoop to see the painting as whole. Its subjects were a man and woman, and the man, with hair to resemble that of Pete’s, was draped around the woman, in the same fashion Alex was draped around Imogen. The man in the painting was the woman’s rock, her healer—her hero.
After Imogen placed several kisses on Alex’s cheeks, and Alex promised to come and see her sometime, Robin and Imogen left. Alex tugged on her shirt to straighten it and took Pete’s hand as he offered it to her. She fell into his arms, and the wind urged them closer together. He kissed the top of her head. She took in a shuddering breath and crouched down to greet the puppies.
“Quite a day, huh?” Pete said. He gave a low whistle. “Thought I’d seen it all, but…wow….”
Alex nodded. “…Crazy…all of this…just…insane.” She nuzzled Slug’s neck.
“He’s pretty shaken up still, I think,” Pete said. “We should take him to the emergency vet, I think. Get him checked out, make sure he didn’t inhale water.”
Alex’s face went to wrinkles, her eyes shining with terror as she looked at Slug. “I hadn’t even considered that!”
“Aw…he’s probably fine, Love,” Pete said. His smile, he hoped, was reassuring. “Just a precaution.”
Alex, brow furrowed, nodded and pulled Slug into her arms. “…Sweet, brave baby…such a good boy…yeah, you’re gonna be just fine, good boy, my Oozy Slug Baby….” Alex curled into him, holding his face as she pressed her lips against his sodden face. She stayed in that form for a while, then looked up at Pete. He saw in her eyes a lifetime of pain. The desire to punch the art dealer came around again, full force, its power source different than that of the beast. Alex’s face contorted and out of her eyes spilled globs of tears.
And in that moment, the beast perished—not a slow death, but a vanishing—instantaneous and with not a hint of struggle, leaving not even a speck of beastly dust behind in its wake. Pete crouched and touched her shoulder, warmed by the sun and gruff with specs of sand. Her body language bid him closer and she shook as he held her. In a beautifully unceremonious fall, they tumbled onto the sand, her into his arms and then her head onto his thigh. Chance and Slug sniffed her hair but Pete had to pull back Chance to keep him from climbing up onto her. He stroked her arms and shoulders, wishing that his touch could spackle the hurt. Sunlight beat down on them. Alex lifted her head, repositioned herself against Pete’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck. He felt the rough exterior of her cast, but at its tip, the under wrap clung to his skin with a heavy sogginess— he frowned. She had jumped into the ocean, too, broken arm and fear be damned.
Alex took in a few shuddering breaths, wiped her tears, and got to her feet. “Let’s go—okay? I want to get Sluggy checked out, ASAP.”
Pete nodded. “Absolutely.”
After the vet gave Slug a clean bill of health, Alex kissed Pete’s nose tip. She did the same after the police department gave Pete, Robin and Slug a special recognition ceremony, and again after the boy’s mother, sobbing, hugged Pete like she meant to never let him go. And Alex performed her signature kiss again after Pete hanged her painting above the fireplace in her apartment. That her nose-tip kisses could ever mean pity was now bitterly laughable.
Together, they gazed at her work. Alex slid her arm around the small of Pete’s back and rested her head against his bicep. She smiled and mimed the action of Imogen’s violet swoop.
And Pete kissed the tip of her nose.
Thank you for reading! Want more? Read the original heart-warming story, “The Christmas Beagle“!
For another beagle short, click here: “Beagle Noses and Human HeartsBeagle Noses and Human Hearts”.