Banjo let out a disconsolate bark as the car squealed off in a cloud of tyre smoke. He blinked his large brown eyes as dust and grit blew over him and yelped at the fading taillights.
‘Where is Master going?’
Cocking his head, he got to his feet, causing the thick steel chain to clank against the lamppost as it pulled taut. Looking back, he moved away from the lamppost and tugged again. His Master had secured him to the post by his collar. He’d never used a chain before, only his leather lead, and only if he had to leave Banjo on his own for a long time.
Banjo peered along the dark road, the lamp bathing him in its sickening yellow glow. Several cars ignoring him as they roared along the motorway. None were his Master. None even slowed down.
‘Where has Master gone? Will he be back soon?’
Earlier that evening, Banjo had run at his Master’s call and the jingle of his collar and lead.
‘A walk, a walk.’
Bounding into the entry way and through the front door, Banjo bounced beside his Master as they made their way to the car, jumping into the rear as his Master opened the door, his tail and body shaking as his excitement built.
They drove for longer than normal, but Banjo didn’t mind. They were going for a walk, that’s all that mattered. He presumed it must be somewhere special, and hopefully, would make his Master happier after all the sadness of late. His nose pressed against a crack in the window, twitched at the mixture of glorious odours of nature and the intense smells of the metal monsters as they passed by.
As it grew darker outside, the smells became strange, different, but still enjoyable. There was a hint of moisture in the air and the green tang of a forest. His Master hadn’t brought him that far in ages. Not since his Mistress became sick and finally left them.
Banjo welcomed the smells, welcomed their return to wide-open spaces, trees, and animals.
The car slowed and pulled over in a small parking area. When his Master stopped the engine, Banjo became excited and barked several times. The prospect of a run through the forest was too much to contain his excitement.
When there was no more noise, Banjo glanced back. His Master was slumped forward over the wheel shaped thing at the front of the car. Banjo cocked his head and yipped. His Master jerked upright.
“It’s okay boy. It’s okay. I’m just tired,” his Master said as he opened the door and stepped out.
Banjo noticed the wetness on his master’s face, but became almost hysterical, his tail thumping against the window with excitement. He leapt out when the rear door opened and scrambled around on the rough tarmac of the parking area. Nails scraped against the surface, but he just wanted to smell the smells and feel the freshness of the forest.
His Master’s command, stopped him immediately and he crept back, his head down, guilt rising in his mind. He hoped he hadn’t been bad; he was just eager to enjoy their walk.
Sitting next to his Master, he peered up lovingly. The old man’s face seemed sad, but a small grin broke out. As his Master reached down and patted Banjo’s head, his tail wagged in appreciation.
“Good boy. I know you’re excited. It’s all different,” he said, sucking a quick breath in to stifle a small sob, “But I need you to be a good boy for a little while longer.”
Reaching down, he clipped a new leash onto Banjo’s collar. The dog tried to contain his enthusiasm, and remain seated, but as the leash tightened, it made a strange clinking noise, something unfamiliar to Banjo. His normal leather leash made no noise. As the chain pulled tighter, Banjo followed, quickening his pace to catch up with his Master.
They stopped beneath one of the tall lights, and the old man reached towards the bottom of the pole before stepping away and walking back to the car. As Banjo watched him go, he thought that Master must have forgotten something, so he simply sat and watched.
When the car suddenly started up and the horrible smell belched out of the back, Banjo cocked his head and stood on all paws.
Bright lights flared at the back of the car and it began to move away.
Banjo stepped forward. The leash made a clinking sound as it grew taut. His Master pulled out of the parking area and roared off down the highway.
Banjo ran forward, but the leash pulled him back. He stumbled but remained on his feet. He let out a pitiful string of barks in the direction of the car’s fading lights.
‘Master come back. I don’t understand.’
The new leash was strong, Banjo pulled and strained, but it was no use. Finally, he stopped and let the lead become slack. He bit down on it, but it was too strong and hurt his teeth. It tasted strange too, like the tins his food came in. It wasn’t animal like the leather, it was the same as his food bowl. He knew he couldn’t bite though it and spat it out.
Banjo peered into the night. He was sure his Master would come back. Laying down, he just had to be patient.
Suddenly he heard sounds like the ones late at night that floated into his kennel. His Master’s stern voice drifted across his mind, complaining about the young people. The sounds were from the cars that the young people drove. Squealing sounds. Thumps. Something shattering. Then silence.
Staring in the direction of the sounds, a strange smell floated to Banjo’s nose. He didn’t like it. It smelt bad. Not natural. It was one of the smells that came from his master’s car. Banjo placed his head on his paws and stared in the direction that his Master had headed.
‘I will wait Master. I will wait until you come back.’
As he blinked his big brown eyes and stared into the darkness, a nagging feeling tugged at his mind. A feeling that his Master was gone and may not come back. A voice behind, snatched that feeling away. ‘We meet again little one.’ Banjo’s ears pricked up. He’d heard that voice before. Standing, he glanced behind.
A tall figure dressed in a long black robe stood nearby, he held a long stick with a curved metal blade. On previous occasions, Banjo had wondered whether he could fetch the long stick thing, but thought it looked a little too heavy for him to carry.
‘Are you here for me?’ ‘No. Never. I only deal with the humans. Another will come for you when it is your time.’ ‘Why are you here then?’ ‘There is a human nearby. His time is close.’ ‘I could use the company. My Master left. I hope he comes back soon, but I don’t think he will.’ ‘No, I don’t think he will return. Humans can be so inhumane at times. But don’t judge him, there may have been a good reason for all this.’ Banjo looked up into the dark hooded face. His big brown eyes seeking out any emotion on face of the tall, gaunt figure.
‘Was I a bad dog? Is that why he left me here?’ ‘No. You are the best of dogs. You are loyal. You are always a joy to be around. Anyone would love to keep you with them.’ ‘Except my Master.’ ‘Well, yes, except him it seems.’ Death pulled his hood back, revealing a bone white skull with deep pits of despair instead of eyes. He waved a hand, the chain fell and crumbled into a line of rust. ‘Shall we search for him? See if we can’t find out what this is all about?’ ‘I’m sure he’ll be back soon, but I’d be happier to walk than sit. Do you have time? You said you had to be somewhere.’
Death produced a glowing, ornate hourglass from within his robe. He studied it for a moment before replacing it. ‘We have time.’ As they walked onto the shoulder of the highway and headed in the direction his Master drove, Banjo felt much happier. Wagging his tail, he kept by Death’s side as they strode down the highway.
‘Have you seen my Mistress since you last visited?’ ‘No, sorry. I rarely see those that I gather again. I take them to the next world; from there it is up to others to sort them out.’ ‘I hope she is happy. She was so sad those last few days.’ ‘She was very sick. Humans call it cancer. It is not a nice way to die, it makes most people very sad.’ ‘I think it made my Master very sad too.’ ‘Yes. Humans can become very upset when they lose their loved ones. I don’t know why. It’s not usually very long before they join them again.’ As they walked, several cars drove by at high speed. They passed straight through the apparition that was Death without even noticing. Banjo felt the wind as they streaked by but felt safe in Death’s company. Something that no humans could admit.
There was a question that had been playing on Banjo’s mind for many years. He mulled it around in his head before finally asking.
‘I’m not very old, but I have had quite a few Masters and Mistresses. Am I just unlucky?’ ‘Ah, that would be because of me.’
Banjo stopped and peered up at the dark figure next to him.
‘How? Why?’ ‘Well. Humans have always been scared of me. I’ve never understood why. After all, my coming is only a natural progression of sorts. They can’t avoid me, but most of them scream and curse when we finally meet.’ He held up his arms and twirled, much to the dog’s amusement. ‘Even this form is of their choosing. To most I come as a skeleton, the eventual version of themselves. To many I wear this black robe. To others, I am naked. The Hindus see me as a horrid figure with many arms, each holding a weapon, or a bloody organ dragged from a living corpse. It’s a little depressing really. I have no control over my appearance.’ ‘Where do I come in then?’
They continued walking. ‘Over the millennium I’ve noticed the affinity that humans have with their animals. So, I recruited a large number to act as a comfort to those about to meet with me.’ ‘Recruited?’ ‘Well, seconded. I found animals such as yourself that have a great internal love for their masters and ensured that they found their way into the company of those about to take their final journey.’ Banjo thought for a moment. He couldn’t count the number, but he could see the faces of his Masters and Mistresses over his short time on Earth. Most were old and infirmed. He had shown each as much love as possible before they met the Reaper, and he found his way to his next owner. To this point, his life had been a rollercoaster of sadness and joy. Of loss and gain.
‘Did you ever think about me? My life has been a continuous journey of love and loss. Every time I think I’ve found a place to live out my life, I lose another owner and find myself back at the beginning. ‘Yes. I have thought about that. I apologise if you have suffered, but at the end of the day, you are a dog. It is in your nature to embrace your family and to love unconditionally. I watched you and made sure that your life was one of joy and comfort. Apart from this little setback, which I think will resolve itself quickly, you have always transitioned easily.’ Banjo thought for a moment and nodded.
‘True. Each of my owners has been kind and generous, and I have loved each the same.’ ‘I will ensure your next master is just as kind.’ Death stopped and surveyed the area ahead. ‘In fact, I’m pretty sure all will be revealed fairly soon.’ Banjo sniffed the air and turned towards the source of an overpowering pungent smell. Ahead of them, a car had run off the road and slammed into a tree. Its taillights still blared, and a thin line of liquid leaked out of the rear. To Banjo, the car looked very familiar. It was only when the lights of a passing truck flared across the scene that he realised whose it was.
He darted forward and scanned the area. A figure was sprawled on the ground a couple of metres from the wreckage. Banjo barked at the prone figure.
‘Master? Master? It’s me. I’m here to help. Please wake up.’
Banjo stepped in close and nuzzled the unconscious form. When there was no reply, he turned to face Death.
Pulling out the hourglass, Death glanced inside as the last grains of sand slid into the bottom bulb. The moment they joined the pile at the base, the hourglass vanished in a bright mist. ‘He is now.’
Banjo stepped back as the body stirred. A ghostly bright apparition rose from the prone figure and stepped forward. Banjo’s Master looked first at the towering figure of Death, nodded in acceptance, then noticing the dog, turned towards him.
‘Banjo? How did you get here?’
A short yip was Banjo’s reply. Stooping to pat the dog, the apparition’s hand simply passed through the animal’s head.
‘I’m so sorry boy, I just didn’t want you following me. I didn’t want you to get hurt when I did,’ the ghost waved a hand at the wreck, ‘this.’
He turned back to the dog and tried to explain.
‘I’ve been so lonely since Mary left us. We’ve always been together. I just couldn’t bare being apart anymore. Please forgive me.’
Banjo stood, yipped twice, and wagged his tail.
The tall figure of Death stepped up and rested a hand on the old man’s shoulder. ‘It is time. Your wife awaits you.’ The ghost looked into Death’s face, then back at the dog.
‘What about Banjo?’ ‘The dog will be fine. This dog will always be fine. Trust me on this.’ Death stepped around the old man and leant down to talk to Banjo. ‘Stay here little one. Your duty is done. You shall live out your life as you have always wanted. I will make sure of that.’ Banjo stared up into the impassive face.
‘Thank you. I’ve only ever wanted to be a good boy.’
If he could have smiled, Death believed his grin would have spread across his entire face. ‘And you will always be a good boy.’ With that Death and Banjo’s Master disappeared.
Staring at the empty space where they stood, Banjo’s tail wagged for a few more seconds before the loneliness settled in once more. He peered at the lifeless body of his Master and whimpered once. Even though he knew his Master had gone on to glory, he was still sad at his loss.
He laid down and placed his head on the old man’s chest. A little warmth bled into him, taking the slight chill of the night away. Closing his eyes, he dreamt of wide-open fields full of pleasant smells and butterflies to chase.
The crunching of tyres on gravel brought him back to reality. His eyes flickered open to see the flashing blue and red lights of an ambulance parked before him.
As a man dressed in green stepped from the vehicle and approached, Banjo sat up. A kindly face greeted the dog, the man had a pleasant smell, unlike the slowly spreading stench of death emanating from his former Master, and the acrid stink of petrol coming from the wrecked car.
Stepping towards him, the paramedic hunkered down to Banjo’s height and held out a hand for him to sniff.
“Hey boy, how you doing?”
Banjo leant forward and sniffed at the paramedic’s hand. There was a slight tinge of some chemical, but overall, it smelt good. That smell told Banjo much about the man. There were hints of biscuits and coffee underneath, but the overriding odour was one of trust.
Raising his hand, the paramedic mussed the top of Banjo’s head, and tickled the delicate spot at the base of one of his ears. Immediately, Banjo was at ease. This man was a good man. The paramedic reached down to Banjo’s collar and found his little bone shaped name tag.
Banjo’s ears pricked up at the mention of his name. Patting the dog once more, the paramedic glanced across at the body.
“You’ve had a pretty rough night it seems,” he said, “Still, not as rough as your owner.” Bringing a length of rope out of his pocket, he slipped it through Banjo’s collar, knotting it to create a makeshift lead. “How about we get you somewhere a little safer, then we can clean up this mess and work out what to do with you. I bet my little girl, at home, would love to meet you. You never know your luck I suppose,” the paramedic said as he led Banjo back to the ambulance and secured the rope to its bumper.
As another ambulance arrived, Banjo watched the paramedic move off and survey the scene more carefully.
Watching the kind man in green examining his Master, something deep inside Banjo told him that Death was right. Life would be different from now on.
Stephen Herczeg is an IT Geek, writer, actor, film maker and Taekwondo Black Belt based in Canberra Australia. He has been writing for over twenty years and has completed a couple of dodgy novels, sixteen feature length screenplays and dozens of short stories and scripts. Stephen’s scripts, TITAN, Dark are the Woods, Control and Death Spores have found success in international screenwriting competitions with a win, two runner-up and two top ten finishes. Stephen has had over seventy short stories and eighty drabbles accepted for publication. His speculative fiction work has featured in numerous anthologies from Hunter Anthologies; the Australasian Horror Writers Association; Oscillate Wildly Press; Things In the Well; Dead Set Press; Dragon Soul Press; Fantasia Divinity; Monnath Books; Battle Goddess Productions; The Great Void Books; Blood Song Books; Black Hare Press; Raven and Drake; and Black Ink Fiction. Over a dozen of his Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons stories have been published through MX Publishing and Belanger Books. He is incredibly proud that his first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Curious Cases of Sherlock Holmes, will be published later this year by MX Publishing. He lives by the creed, Just Finish It, and his Mum is his biggest fan.