By his 25th birthday, Franco had a new girl.
Spooky was a normal Weimaraner. She started life like all dogs did: as a wriggling, soft puppy. She grew big fast afterwards, but when young, she could almost fit into Franco’s big hands.
While he first regarded Spooky as a brat, Franco grew to love that baby. It was a new experience entirely, as Franco never owned a young animal before. He sometimes stopped to think what Sagebear or the departed Peanut would have been like as big-pawed pups. But whenever he pet Spooky, she was soft like velvet. The older dogs were coarse. She licked him with a tiny tongue and sometimes curled up in one of Franco’s shoes, when he took them off.
Mum and Amy made a good decision after all!
“Just remember to let her out in the yard,” Annette said, leaning on the counter with a mug of pre-work coffee. “I had to clean up the last Spooky shits.”
“Will do,” he said. “I do need to leave by 7, though. I’ve been planning this dinner for weeks.”
“And I’ve been planning to buy that place. Wait a little and you’ll get free dinners and waitresses’ numbers from yours truly!”
“You should have thought of that for my birthday.” He would give a lot for a date with a cute waitress. Franco knew he would hate it, of course, but he would hate it less than being single on his 25th birthday.
“Well, Mr. Iadanza is a big shithead that way. He took the place off the market last week and I guess I’ll have to oust his daughter now,” said Annette. “I need the excitement of fighting off another gang…hey, this is an outdoor dinner, right?”
“That’s what I wanted,” Franco said.
“Bring Spooky with you. She needs to get used to crowds.”
Franco lifted up the puppy to give her a smooch. “Looks like we have a date, little Spooks!”
Spooky proceeded to lick the tip of Franco’s nose. She wasn’t the dog who whimpered below him. Licking was too big of a job for that.
Franco turned his neck to see an old Sagebear begging at him. Her blue eyes still sparkled with a youthful cuteness. Her long tail sunk and curled up between her back legs. And while her coarse old fur was flecked with stark white, Sagebear was still a dog.
“Uh, you know, I’ll take Sagebear instead,” said Franco. “We’ve been leaving her on her own too much.”
“But she likes it that way!” Annette then winced. She almost lost grip of her coffee. “Actually…why not? You don’t have a friend who’s known you for longer.”
Spooky scampered away once she was put down. Franco then crouched down to Sagebear’s height. She drew closer to sniff him.
“Hey, you really have been there for me all this time,” he said to Sagebear. He pet her head while he spoke. “Twenty-five years of Sagebear.”
“And even more!” Annette chimed in.
“Yup, the weirdest old dog I’ll ever know. You think she can still walk there?”
Sagebear hadn’t slowed down much in her impossible old age. Her tail wagged fast when Franco got out the leash. He loved watching her sniff around the sidewalk in search of trash and treats. And she seemed to have no ill will towards him. After all, he was like a bratty puppy to her when he was a baby. Annette said that Franco loved to pull Sagebear’s ears. He even rode her like a steed, just like the other kids did.
It was dark out when they arrived and took their seats outside. Dog-friendliness was the one big benefit of Iadanza’s downtown. If Annette bought the place like she threatened to, that would remain. She’d probably have little Spooky help her cook too. She trained Sagebear to fetch hanging garlic for her years before.
Speaking of her, Sagebear curled up on the bricks, waiting for scraps. Franco read the menu. He considered ordering an appetizer just for her.
“You’re a weird dog…do you like mussels and wine?” he asked Sagebear. “I know dogs shouldn’t have wine, but you’ve surprised me before.” Franco reached down to scratch behind her floppy ears.
“Can I interest you in any specials, sir?” his waitress asked. Franco knew a little bit about the gorgeous Kelly Greenwood. She was about twenty years old and about to transfer to the private University of Terrebonne. “Tonight we have pumpkin tortellini, and our soup of the day is ginestrata.”
“Christ, I hate pumpkin,” he muttered. It was the watery, gross cousin of the glorious butternut squash. “I’m just feeling like the usual today.”
“You’re the eggplant lasagna guy, aren’t you?”
“The only fat and pink one you’ll ever meet, I suppose.”
“I’ll put that in. Any soup or requests for the dog?”
Franco ordered a cup of soup, and Sagebear could eat any boneless scraps the chef had on hand. She got her food first, and didn’t turn her wet nose up at a pile of steak gristles.
The ginestrata was great and devoured quickly. Kelly poured him a glass of water too. Franco took a few sips and looked around the court. It was a couples’ kind of night, with the only singleton dining being one Lucy Ferne. He was desperate…maybe…at only a few points of the day. But not desperate enough for Lucy. A pair of sparkling green eyes was wasted on a malformed face.
It pained Franco a little more to know all the couples there, in some way or another. The Pines, seated in the corner, had twin boys that sometimes bugged Samira. They were the unlikely pairing of a librarian and an ex-stripper that lasted. Maybe it meant there was hope for Seng!
Speaking of Seng, his ex sat to Franco’s right. Zo had her little brown eyes on Christopher Lang that whole time after all. They held hands and Franco couldn’t see what Zo saw in Chris. He was chubby and bespectacled, with tousled dark hair and hooded eyes…
…why couldn’t Zo meet Franco first? He would give her a chance.
He wasn’t even going to begin to think about the Goodes seated closest to the entrance. Six years after Goodwin’s amazing death, eight years after Will screwed his girlfriend, and they still were trash! Franco considered, only sometimes, to at least forgive Gena and Martin. It was something about how Franco wanted his family to hate the police only as a class. Gena was a desk jockey, and even more harmless when on maternity leave. Or it was something about how Martin was still just a kid.
“Please, I can live life alone for now,” he spat out. “Who finds love at 25 anyways?” Aside from Annette, of course. And Shark. Well, the latter was far from a good example of exhibiting pure young love.
Sagebear looked up at him again. Her gristles were devoured, and she begged for more nourishment. That was what she tended to beg for, after all.
“How stupid. I can’t be alone when I have you,” he said to her. “And I’ll order some meatballs for you, how about that?”
Kelly had to be around somewhere. The cons of Annette not owning any given restaurant included no unlimited kitchen access. Sometimes Franco would go out back himself to ask for an extra poached egg at the diner. No one would say no to Annette’s son.
“Or do you think those are too heavy for you?” he continued. Sagebear sniffed in the direction of one of the other tables. Someone ordered a chicken marsala.
Wait, no, that was in back of them. She was sniffing to Franco’s right.
“I almost missed the birthday boy!”
Seng was not considerate. He plopped himself down across from Franco as if he was invited.
“I would have come earlier if I wasn’t swamped with Nate’s case,” he said, cheerfully. “But it’s a milestone year for both of us! And I want you to know that I’m doing better.”
“Yeah, great to hear,” Franco mumbled. “Seng, can you just save it for your doctor? I want to be alone tonight.”
“You never wanna be alone, what are you saying?” He laughed. “I mean, I don’t need you to fuck me dry right now, but I’m always open to being charitable like that. I just feel bad now. I get to make amends with my lawyer friends and go bowling with Youa’s family, and you have nothing.”
“Don’t rub it-”
Kelly cut them off, while balancing her silver platter.
“And one eggplant lasagna! Does your date need anything?” She asked.
“He needs to keep his mouth shut,” said Franco. “Thank you.”
He tried to ignore Seng. It was easy with food to help. But the man was still there, in his loose red polo. His deep brown eyes gave Franco a few pleading, flirty looks.
“Why do you want to be here?” he asked Seng. “Your ex is right behind me.”
Zo hadn’t left her table. She waved hello to Seng, in between gazing into Chris’ eyes.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Seng said, slouching on the table. “I thought that maybe you’d like to hear that I’m doing well, though. Like, you don’t have to be concerned about me. You don’t need to press your mum to free me or anything…I’m living.”
Sagebear started to whine and get restless.
“Then can you act like it is? It’s hard to be fine when you just wanna get drunk and die!”
“I hope your awful brother-in-law is making you happy and that you work yourself to death in the job you love,” Franco said, groaning afterwards. “But I am content with being alone on my-”
It sounded like a bomb, but no one else noticed it.
“Is that coming from the Esplanade?” It was right across from Iadanza’s. “Seng, did you hear that?”
“No…I guess it’s one of those extraterrestrial magic things.”
“It’s probably not.” But then he looked down to Sagebear.
She looked surprised too. Her long tongue stuck out of her agape mouth. And she ran off, as fast as her ancient legs would take her. It was still faster than Franco could ever run.
As Franco predicted, she ran to the Esplanade and bounded down the stairs. On most summer nights, it was a gorgeous place to watch the sky and the still lake waters. And most of Twinbrook knew about it. Dates usually flocked to the park.
The two women he saw could have been on a date, if he had no context. But Franco recognized one of them, even if he saw her only from a distance. A black gown, if a different one, hugged a tall and slim body. Wine-purple hair cascaded down her shoulders, and two little horns peeked out of it. The other was thicker, stronger, and wielded a sword. Her pale blue skin was not far off from Annette’s. And unlike some standard-issue Diamanda, her head was framed by two big horns.
“Now, she said we always bait them like this.”
“That stone was missing for eons.”
Franco didn’t want to say anything. If they didn’t turn around, he could escape. What defense did he have? His mum had the ring. The only weapon he could get was his lasagna fork, if he ran back up to the bistro. But if he could do that, he could escape that mess entirely.
It seemed like a decent plan, but Sagebear let out a houndish bay.
“I guess you are one of them!” It was the same Ty-mar he knew. She spoke with the same “translation delay” and smooth, whistling voice. Her new companion grimaced at her. And at him too. She put her hands behind her back. “You might know why I’m here.”
“I don’t have it,” Franco said. “I’m sorry.”
“You must know where it is.”
Annette could be anywhere by then. “I really don’t.”
“I think we can work this out. Allow me to-” Ty-mar went silent. But one loud sniffer did not.
“I have heard so much about these things!” Ty-mar’s face beamed. “Everyone who has fought on Earth says dogs are the best part of this planet.”
“We have a job.”
“Leim’aain’ahiimahv’ndlab, I am going to enjoy this dog. Thank you.”
“Yeah, she’s mine,” Franco said. “If you just want to pet her, I’m totally fine with that.”
“I might just have to,” said Ty-mar. “But we should get introductions out of the way. I am Ty-mar, and as you might have heard, Lei-ndla joins me. She is a brilliant, exalted soldier of the Second Court and a key in the Genocides of-”
“I don’t have time for this.”
Lei drew her sword up. It glimmered in the Esplanade’s standing lights. She dressed like a stripper, in booty shorts and tall boots. But when Lei ran, she ran like a greyhound after a rabbit.
Franco could not.
Without words, she lept into the air, pointing her sword down. Perhaps it was the end. It stood a huge chance of hitting Franco’s heart, or fatally deep into his gut. If he was lucky, a swift beheading.
“This stupid Earth gravity,” she muttered. Lei missed by a large margin.
“At least I won’t miss this,” she said, raising her sword up high for a bashing. Franco was petrified. And if he ran, Lei could skewer him on the stairs or on the route home.
Lei knelt down in front of Sagebear. She was a loud dog, but it was the first time Franco heard her vocalize like that at all. One bark after another punctuated by a series of whimpers and snuffs.
“This old language? How could she?” Lei asked herself.
“Is this the tone language of Sabik-2?” Ty-mar asked.
“Of the Sirius system. I’ll listen, you dog.”
Sagebear continued. And unlike his foes, she didn’t bother to translate for Franco.
“She says to let him deny you three times before I attack. And that I kicked arse in the Perseus system during the second war.”
“I wish we did not have to do that,” she said to Sagebear.
They both stood up to face Franco.
“So you get to live,” Lei said.
“And I give you three chances before she…enacts any violence on you,” said Ty-mar. “This is your first chance, but I give you two more after this. I hope to see you again, jaing’haihv. And your dog.”
“Yes, I’m sure we can work something out,” said Franco.
Ty-mar approached him closer, while Lei let Sagebear sniff her free hand.
“I know you are not the enemy here,” she said. “Prepare well for next time. We reward handsomely.”
Lei looked down at Sagebear as she walked away.
“I hope to learn your name,” she said. “You must have a lot to tell.”
The two of them were gone in a green flash. Sagebear nuzzled Franco’s legs as she passed by him, and then whacked him with her tail.
He descended, picking Sagebear up for a hug. “I don’t know what you did or how I should react to it, but you are such a good girl,” Franco said. “Thank you so much.”
She was silent for him. But her big, blue Catahoula eyes said more than any coded language ever could.
“They’re gonna murder me!” Franco sobbed, as Sagebear started to climb up the stairs. “Mum’s not going to reason with them. And she expects me to-”
He sighed. Sagebear could at least lead him to a better place. That sort of stuff was only the beginning of her wisdom, it seemed.
She thought for herself, though. Instead of escorting Franco home and acting as his valiant watchdog, Sagebear stopped. She froze, and someone’s pen scratched against a notebook.
“Oh…hi Seng,” Franco said. He left him behind to investigate, but he assumed that Seng just went home. Instead, he crouched down with a notebook. It was incomprehensible in any language. Franco would not claim to know Hmong at all, but he knew it was written in more than a jumbled collection of b’s and v’s and j’s. “Is this something relevant?”
“It was just a stupid thing to keep me awake while waiting for you,” he said. “They’re tone-based, whatever they are.”
“That’s…why didn’t you just go home? They could have killed you too.”
“But they didn’t.”
Seng got up. “Listen, I know you didn’t get to finish your birthday dinner, so let’s forget this and I’ll treat you to a great sandwich.”
“Come on, that truck in Willowhelm closes in an hour.”
A/N: Spooky World Debut: Why I Keep Writing This Thing 😉
Languages based on whistles/tones are real. Hmong is tone-based enough to have a whistled variant, hence why my research led me to Sagebear knowing a secondary barked tongue that works with tones. 😉