Ferry Ride


“Hold on, buddy. Let me help.”

He stood up and walked behind the German Shepherd and straddled him. Once he was in position, he reached down and carefully grabbed him between his abdomen and hind legs then gently raised him up. Once the dog was on all fours, he wagged his tail then arched his back before taking a first painful step. The dog wasn’t just stretching, he needed to ease into his first steps whenever he moved. This time, he’d slept at the foot of his human’s bed all night, something he’d done for the last 7 years since coming back from Afghanistan with him in 2012.

“Good boy, Rocco. Let’s go outside, okay?”

They slowly made their way to the back door where the man’s two-legged partner opened the door to let his four-legged buddy go outside and do what dogs do. Watching him walk around was almost as painful to his human owner as the walking itself was to the dog. Seeing him try to squat down to poo was even harder.

Rocco, whose formal, registered AKC name was The Rock, given in honor of the actor Duane Johnson who was called by that name, had been slowly declining the last year since turning 14, and now, at 15, it was obvious their time together was short. How short he couldn’t know for sure, but it was no longer measured in years or even months. It was now a matter of weeks or maybe even days.

His owner, Nick Jennings, was a 28-year old former Army military police officer and well aware that if Rocco couldn’t stand up by himself, the end was very near. His best friend was far too old for any kind of surgical procedure or gimmick like a cart with wheels to act as his rear legs. There simply wasn’t any magical cure left and letting him go would be the only humane thing to do. Still, the thought of taking him to the vet to intentionally kill him made Nick ill no matter how compassionate that final act might be.

Rocco managed to finish his business without any help so when Nick let him back in he petted his dog even more than normal.

“That’s my boy!” Nick told him as he roughed up the German Shepherd. “Come on. Let’s go eat, what do you say?”

At the sound of the word ‘eat’ Rocco’s ears picked up and in spite of his arthritic legs, he tried to do a little hop, something that showed he was happy.

Nick put some chicken tenderloins in a bowl, cut them up, then poured in a little chicken broth for extra flavor and stuck it in the microwave to warm it up a bit. When it came out he added in some kibble and a chondroitin supplement that had been a big help a year ago. Now, Rocco was so far gone, it probably wasn’t doing much good. But Nick added it anyway and set the bowl down.

He’d stopped making his dog sit and look at him until he gave him permission to eat, something they’d done since day one, about four months ago, when discipline no longer mattered. Cesar, the TV dog whisperer, always said dogs need ‘exercise, discipline, and affection’ in that order. Nick had always lived by that, but the last few months Rocco got no exercise beyond walking around the house, no discipline at all, and tons of affection.

Two days later, Rocco squatted down to poo and couldn’t get up. He’d also been having even more trouble standing, and Nick was now having to help him get up almost every time. If the situation was perfect and Rocco could get traction, he could still get up with great effort. But other than that his legs were gone.

All that day at work, Nick put off making the call he knew had to made. But when he got home and it was clear that Rocco had been in the same place all day, he knelt down, petted him, then said, “I’m afraid the time has come, buddy.”

He somehow got through telling the woman who answered the phone why he needed to bring his dog in on Saturday morning without getting emotional. She was as sympathetic and understanding as anyone could be, and had his voice cracked she wouldn’t have said a word. Nick came close to choking up a couple of times but got through the call without letting his deep sadness show through.

But when he hung up, he looked at his best friend who was laying beside him on the floor and felt the first tear fall since the day two of his friends had been killed in Afghanistan. He, along with the two of them, as well another MPs, were guarding the front gate of a joint Army-Marine task force base near Herat in the northwest part of that godforsaken hell hole when a suicidal jihadist tried to drive an explosives-laden truck through the gate.

All them laid down a wall of lead, but the big truck kept rolling until it was almost on top of them when the driver, who’d been hit several times, blew himself and the truck to smithereens. Nick saw the driver moving and instinctively turned away from the vehicle and dove behind a concrete barrier just as the explosion engulfed them. Rocco had been sitting behind the barrier as he’d been told, just watching his master. Nick had pulled the dog down and under him as he dove for cover.

Two soldiers survived with serious wounds, two died just feet away from him, while Nick Escort Bayan Gaziantep got up with nothing more than a severe concussion and perforated eardrums. Rocco had taken a small piece of shrapnel in his right rear leg, but he’d be fine.

As he looked at The Rock, the same feeling of helplessness washed over him as it had that day so long ago as he realized there was nothing anyone could do either for his his fallen comrades or his beloved dog.

It really was Rocco’s time. He’d always hated the whole ‘Rainbow Bridge’ thing as though euthanizing a pet wasn’t killing it. Then again, he knew that most people weren’t as comfortable with the harsh realities of life as he was, so if thinking about rainbows or lollipops made it a little easier to say goodbye, that was just fine. But Nick entertained no such illusions.

Living in a modest, single-family home meant Nick could bury his beloved dog in the back yard, but the yard was small, and it just didn’t make any sense. So he called the vet’s office again and asked about cremation. The same woman answered the phone and let him know that was an option. She explained the procedure and gave him the price, and when she was finished, Nick told her that was what he wanted to do. He wasn’t sure what he’d do with Rocco’s ashes, but he could deal with that later.

When he woke up that Saturday morning, Nick’s first thought was that The Rock had no idea what was about to happen as he lay at the foot of his bed, loyally waiting for Nick to get up.

The only positive thing he could think of was that for the middle of March, the weather in Tukwila, Washington, a town of about 20,000 located due south of Seattle, was looking pretty good. The forecast high of 65 with partly cloudy skies was about as good as it got for that time of year.

The first thing Nick noticed when he brought Rocco inside the vet’s office at 10am that morning was a sign with some candles next to it that read ‘If these candles are lit someone is saying goodbye to a family member. Please be respectful’.

Rocco could barely walk at all, and there was no way he could walk on the tile floor so Nick carried him inside, cradling him in his arms. At 6′ and 185 pounds, carrying the 70- pound dog wasn’t a big deal as long as he could put him down at some point.

The same woman he’d spoken to got right up, called for help, and just seconds later, two other younger girls came out with a small litter and asked Nick to lay him on it. He choked back tears again knowing where they were taking him even though he’d be able to say goodbye before being the vet ended his life.

“I’ll see you in a few minutes, okay, buddy?” Nick said as he petted his head and ears.

He paid for the services before being led to a waiting room while a catheter was being inserted into Rocco’s right front leg. The same two girls brought him in a couple of minutes later followed by the vet who explained the procedure to him before asking if he had any questions.

“No,” was all he said as nicely as he could, knowing she had to deal with grieving pet owners many times each week.

Rocco lay very still on the litter, his eyes looking here and there. He had no idea where they were, but his master was right beside him, and that was all that mattered.

“Okay. I’ll give you some time alone and come back in a few minutes. I brought a few pieces of pepperoni if you’d like to give him some treats,” she said, knowing it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

“Yes. Thank you. That’s very thoughtful,” Nick told her as she handed him the small pieces of spicy meat.

Rocco wolfed each one down and got a ton of pets and love each time until they were all gone.

“You’re such a good boy,” Nick said. “I know you’re a smart dog, but not even you will understand this, but I’m gonna say it anyway.”

He cradled the dog’s head and leaned down and said, “They say every man dies but not every man truly lives. I believe that, and I also believe it’s true of dogs like you, buddy. You’ve lived a life few dogs ever have. I’ve done everything humanly possible to make yours pleasant and fun, and you’ve made mine worth living even when I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. But now it’s your time, Rock. If I could trade places with you, I would, but this is one thing you have to do alone, okay, buddy?”

He laid his cheek on his dog’s head then started crying. It was just them, all alone in this cold, plain room where his best friend’s life would end in another minute or two. Somehow, Nick managed to regain control by taking a few slow, deep breaths just before the vet walked back in. He’d never taken the sunglasses he’d worn off so she had no way of knowing he’d gotten emotional. Then again, she wouldn’t have cared, but Nick would have, and he was glad she didn’t know.

“Do you need some more time?” she asked very respectfully.

“No. There’ll never be enough time, so…we’re ready,” he replied, trying to smile but unable to do so.

“Okay, I’ll be giving him this first injection to help him completely relax. Then once you’re ready, this second vial contains an overdose of barbiturates that will painlessly stop his heart.”

Nick had his hand on Rocco’s head and just petted his ears as the best friend he’d ever had went into a drug-induced haze for a minute or so before his life came to an end.

“Take as much time as you need. We’ll come back and take care of him after that,” the vet told him.

Nick couldn’t imagine doing that many times a week as owners sat there crying or trying not to as the animal they loved took its last breath.

“Thank you. You really made this easier for both of us,” Nick told her.

“I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” she said understandingly.

When the two younger girls came back, Nick got up, thanked them, too, and left the room. Out front, the older woman said she’d call him when Rocco’s ashes were ready to be picked up. They’d be put into a small urn, and that would be that.

Nick had never felt so all alone as he did on the drive home. But just when he thought nothing could be worse, he walked inside and found that everywhere he looked, he expected to see The Rock laying in one of his favorite places, wagging his tail, happy to see his longtime best friend. But that would never happen again, and even though he rarely drank and it wasn’t even noon, Nick grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a double before sitting down and crying one last time. It didn’t last long, but it had to come out. There were just too many memories and too strong a connection with this one special animal he’d so dearly loved, and now that he was literally all alone, nothing else mattered.


Two Days Later

“Mr. Jennings? Hi. I’m calling from…”

Rocco’s ashes were ready, and Nick promised he’d swing by on his way home from work.

Now that Rocco was gone, Nick’s two remaining joys in life were work and the gym. Nick had started working out not long after finishing MP school, and he still made it a point to get to the gym at least three days a week no matter how busy he was.

His job was also something he dearly treasured. After doing four years on active duty as an MP, the last thing he wanted to do was become a police officer. He admired those who did the job, but he’d had enough of it and wanted to do something else. He went to college for a year and had odd jobs along the way, but he stumbled into this purely one by accident.

A few years ago, his dad, who lived about 10 miles south of him, was having his garage professionally remodeled, something Nick hadn’t ever considered possible let alone something on which people spent a lot of money. He and his dad would remove everything, clean out the junk and crud that had accumulated over the years, and then repaint the walls and baseboards. The garage company would then come and take care of everything else.

The ‘everything else’ consisted of prepping the concrete floor using a diamond-grinder buffing machine to remove oil stains and dirt as well as open the pores in the concrete. After that, a new paint color would be rolled on. The crew would then sprinkle a ton of colored flakes on the paint then cover it with a hard, transparent, protective coating.

The floor would be left to cure overnight, and the following day all of his dad’s cheap, plastic storage cabinets and laminate tables would be hauled away and replaced with some very professional-looking wood cabinets, a work bench, and other storage bins as well as some incredibly strong shelving known as ‘Monkey Bars’.

Nick had been living at home at the time, and when the crew came to start working, he talked to one of the guys who was running the huge buffer. When he mentioned they were hiring, Nick asked where he could apply. The younger man, who was about his age, told him the owner of the company would be coming by to do a Q&A (quality and assurance) check on their work.

“Just let him know you’re interested, and since you’re a veteran, my money’s on you getting hired on the spot.”

He’d been exactly right, and two days later, Nick started his new job. He went ‘balls to the wall’ learning everything there was to learn about the business, and within a year, Nick was working in sales, something he’d never considered doing. But because the products he was selling were of the highest quality, and because he knew how much men (and some women) loved their garages, he was able to be extremely effective.

He believed in the product and the company, and all he had to do was offer suggestions after listening carefully to what the homeowner wanted. He’d make notes as they talked then use the laptop he carried with him to provide the homeowner a 3D rendering of what his new garage would look like. He never pushed anyone to make a decision, and never tried to ‘up-sell’ anything. In most cases, the homeowner would start adding on things himself once he saw the possibilities, and the more he sold, the more he earned in commissions.

He’d since moved into a place of his own, and was now making a very decent amount of money, and even more importantly to him, Nick looked forward to going to work every morning. The only thing missing in his life was someone to share it with, but since the first day he’d met The Rock, most of that void had been filled.

Nick had more than ample opportunity to date, but he didn’t have any interest in any kind of relationship. He was good-looking enough to be able to hook up with some attractive woman pretty much anytime he wanted, and until recently, that had been all he’d ever wanted.

But with the void in his life now wide open, Nick realized he was sick of the hook ups and, when he was honest with himself, more than a little lonely. And that realization made him wonder if it might finally be time to think about finding a ‘spousal unit’ (a term a grizzly old master sergeant he’d known had often used for a wife) and settle down.

The decent weather was still holding, and Nick told his boss he needed to take the afternoon off the next day. Everyone who knew Nick was aware he’d just lost his dog, so when he explained his plan, getting a few hours of free time was a given. The owner had had to put down three dogs of his own over the years, and he assured Nick he fully understood.

When he stopped by the vet’s that afternoon, the same woman was there behind the desk. She smiled when Nick walked in then got up and said she’d be right back.

He knew what she was going to get, but when she came back carrying all that was left of The Rock, Nick felt his throat tighten.

“Do I owe you anything else?” he asked.

“No. And again, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the woman politely said as she handed him the little urn with the utmost of care.

He thanked her then said out loud, “Come on, boy,” as he carried Rocco’s ashes out to his truck.

That night he set the urn at his foot of the bed and said, “Night, buddy,” the way he had every night that Rocco had slept near him before laying down and once again thinking about the years they’d had together.

Nick took Rocco’s ashes to work with him the next morning, then, after wrapping up a sale with a homeowner in the town of White Center, he headed toward the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal located just a few miles to the northwest of where he’d just concluded the sale.

It had been a couple of years since Nick had ridden a ferry. As a boy, his dad had taken him over to Bainbridge Island as well as Whidbey Island several times, but he’d only been on one a time or two since leaving the Army.

But after thinking about it for several days, the open water seemed like the perfect place to spread The Rock’s ashes, so he’d decided to take the ferry closest to his home, honor his beloved dog, then head back to his empty house.

The sun was still out but it wasn’t overly warm. While it would be chilly to people in the southern parts of the country, it was the perfect weather for short sleeves. And for people who lived in the Seattle area, shorts were also in order. But Nick was still in his work clothes which consisted of blue pants and a blue and white shirt with the company’s logo on it, so that would have to do.

He followed the traffic director’s instructions as he boarded the ferry and ended up on the aft end of the boat on its starboard, or right side. He shut the engine off and sat there as cars filled in the space behind him in a way that ensured the load was well-balanced.

“This is it, buddy,” Nick said as he picked up the urn and set it his lap.

He waited until the ferry got underway then opened his door and stepped outside. He didn’t bother locking it and carried the urn to the front of the boat and stood there for a few minutes just taking in the salt air and warm sun before heading back to the stern where he’d say goodbye to his best friend.

Nick stood there all alone for another few minutes then realized it was time. What he didn’t realize was he’d caught the attention of another passenger who saw that he was carrying an urn with him. She’d wanted to say something to him, but after watching him for some time, she wasn’t sure what she’d say, so she just stood there, maybe 20 feet away and continued observing his actions.

The younger man carrying the urn had passed her as he walked to the aft end of the boat, and that’s when she first saw him and realized what he was doing. She’d also realized he was a very nice-looking young man, and her heart went out to him as she recalled doing the very same thing exactly three years ago that very day.

Once he’d scattered the ashes, she watched him slowly replace the lid then turn around. It appeared to her that he was looking to see if anyone had been watching, and in reality, that was partially true. Nick had teared up again, and the last thing he wanted was for someone to see him exhibiting any kind of emotional weakness.

So when his eyes made contact with hers, she saw him look away as though he didn’t want to look at her. But just in that brief moment she understood what was going on and could no longer stand there without at least introducing herself and letting him know why she’d been watching.

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