Everything changed when night fell.
Peering around a tree, August sniffed, raising his rain-dripping muzzle high in the air. He padded forwards into the night, walking over spiky grass and random bits of soggy paper – sometimes from magazines, sometimes from newspapers no one bothered to read.
Carefully, August leaped onto a wooden picnic table, hearing the wood creak and bend under his weight. He gazed around the park, sniffing and eyeing the droopy trees and soggy ground. A small pond dominated the middle of the park, and water lapped eagerly at its shallow banks to escape onto the earth.
His eyes lingered on a tipped-over trashcan. The opening was turned away from him, but he could still smell it: bear, the tangy woodsy smell he usually stayed away from. August growled and barked once, waiting for the furry face of malice to appear, but he was met with silence. He barked again, eager to let this creature know who strolled this park, yet still he was met with silence.
He slowly let himself lie down, easing his achingly stiff joints to the damp, scratchy wood, and waited, his head on his paws. August licked his left paw anxiously and shifted his weight to his other side to better see the trashcan. It was jerking slightly, crushing grass stems beneath its bulk.
A tomcat’s screech lit the night air and August startled, perking his ears up. Another cat responded to the noise, and furious yowling ensued until August smelt blood nearby, and, once again, silence fell.
August raised his head hesitantly, forcing back the whine at his throat, and willed himself to move. He leaped from the table, falling awkwardly on his bad leg and rolling onto his side. August heaved himself to his paws and slowly walked over to the trashcan, ears perked, tail up, and legs sprung, ready to flee.
Movement stirred from the can, claws clanked against the barren metal insides, and August froze, the fur on the back of his neck standing up. The trashcan tossed violently side to side, and he quickly backed up, giving a nervous yip. A plastic bag, full of tantalizing meat scents, fell from its cavernous mouth, and August whined, his empty stomach reminding him again just how cavernous it was. As quickly as it had started to move, the can stilled, and a dark figure haltingly emerged from its fathoms, walking on four legs.
August growled, feigning bravery in the face of this unknown threat; by its size, it couldn’t be an adult bear, but the mother could still be around to protect it, whatever it was. The cub stumbled forward, dizzily slipping on the grass, but righted itself and wandered over to the table, ignoring August completely.
After scanning and sniffing the park for traces of a mother bear, he stood stiffer and barked. The cub spun around, looking at him with wide eyes, human eyes. August started, backing up again; it was a human child. Scrutinizing it now, August could see the pale face and long hair, the bare arms and feet. He stood completely motionless, unsure what to do; in all of his months of wondering through campsites and neighborhoods, he had never seen a human child, alone, at night.
The child breathed heavily, pulling her thin clothing closer to herself. She grabbed a stick from the ground and brandished it before her, waving and pointing it in August’s face.
He felt the ambient waves of fear pouring from her thin frame, her knees clinging to the soggy ground and seeping into the earth. Silently, August sat, wagging his tail. The swishes against the grass seemed to calm the girl, and she dropped the stick, leaning against the table and grasping her side. August smelled blood, both human and bear. Even in the darkness, he could see a crimson oozing liquid beneath her small hands. He cautiously stood and started inching closer to her, but she put a shaking hand out.
“No, no d-dog.”
August stopped, smelling her heightened fear and hearing her beating heart, fluttering so loudly and so quickly against her chest he was reminded of a hummingbird’s wings. He looked at his injured leg, nearly broken a week ago when his human, his master, had…
He understood her pain.
He stopped thinking about his past and padded back over to the delicious, beckoning scents of the plastic bag from the trashcan. Tearing it open, he grabbed the day-old remains of a sandwich, and, with his mouth drooling, he trotted over to the girl.
She looked at August carefully and silently, watching him as he set the sandwich down, watching him as he tore off a piece of the bread for himself and walked away, leaving the rest for her. He lay a fair distance away, chewing softly at the stale bread, and, when he was finished, looked at her, straight into her eyes.
“T-thank you.” The girl murmured, grasping the sandwich. She took small, slow bites, savoring the meat as if it were the best sandwich she had ever eaten.
August whined, feeling his stomach growl, but turned away from his instinct to rush at the injured human and grab her food. He felt a strange desire for this human’s admiration, a strange desire for company. Despite his past, August recognized the hollowness he had felt the past few months, completely alone and surviving off of scraps and squirrels.
He walked over to the girl and, without a sound, lay across her lap and licked her left hand. The girl didn’t resist. She stroked his side and, as she felt the warmth of his body, smiled.
August sighed happily.
He could smell the bear on her, see the effects of its claws on her side, and know what had happened to her; one human girl, alone, with one car in the parking lot. He had a feeling the rest of her pack would not be coming back.
As the night wore on, the stars faded from the sky and the darkness of the camp raised like a curtain, August felt the girl’s breaths gradually slow, gradually become longer and fewer, and gradually stop.
When he heard the first morning birds chirping, August at last rose from her lap and greeted the warmth of the morning air with more thanks than he ever had before. He saw a car pull up in the parking lot and barked madly, incessantly, until he saw humans emerge from its insides. They shouted at him, but he kept barking – barking until his voice was hoarse, until they ran over.
The humans saw her and understood. They saw the deserted car, the markings on her side, the blood soaked into her clothes, soaked into August’s fur, and they understood. Softly, they called to him, and he limped to their open arms, panting and coughing blood from his throat.
Humans gathered around his girl, looking at her and talking to each other, until eventually, one of them took her away on a flat board. The ones who held him with a stiff rope bowed their heads respectfully until she was gone. August didn’t try to follow her; he knew where she was going. It was the same place he had seen his brothers and sisters go, one by one, after his master had…
August tugged at his rope, testing its strength. Feeling its looseness in the human’s hand, he yanked and pulled free, running to where she had lain with him over the night. He could not help but feel a sadness at her death, a kind of grieving a mother, his mother, feels for the loss of her pups.
A human who knelt at the spot he was sniffing stroked his fur. August looked into her eyes, and she spoke to him, “You miss her, pooch?”
He licked her face, and she smiled.