Last night, my dog, Maggie, passed away unexpectedly. She lived a very long life and died peacefully at home, which is about as much as any of us can hope for, human or canine. Still, she will be missed. Her passing made me think of a short story I wrote about a year ago, when my sister’s dog, Bronco, was ill and we were afraid we might lose him. Fortunately, he recovered. Very unfortunately, their cat, Mad Max the Crazy Cat, also passed away just recently. Please keep in mind that the references to “Jack” in this story were written with love and affection. The story is called “A Saintly Mission”. Maggie may not have been a literal saint, but she was a saint to me.
Cadet F-Left lined up with the other members of her squad. She glanced around, searching for some clue of what was yet to come. Nervous anticipation made her stomach clench uncomfortably. The squad leader entered, consulting his clipboard as he strode to the head of the small group.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said.
“Good morning, sir,” the group chorused back.
“Today you’ll be making the jump to your initial rendezvous point. From there, you will each be transported to a separate family unit. Your coaches will be waiting for you once you arrive at your final destination. F-Back,” he said, addressing the cadet just behind F-Left, “your coach had to return to base a little earlier than anticipated, so you’ll be flying solo on this mission. I have every confidence in you. Just remember your training.”
F-Back appeared startled by this news, but nodded his understanding all the same.
“F-Right, your coach’s name is Gordie,” the squad leader said. “Don’t let his looks fool you, he’s actually very friendly. You’ll be in good hands.”
F-Right seemed both perplexed and reassured by this. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“F-Left,” the squad leader continued, consulting his clipboard again, “You’ll be with Coach Bronco,” he said.
“Bronco?” she repeated, struggling to suppress a giggle.
“Bronco,” he repeated firmly. “You could tease him about his name, but I wouldn’t recommend it. He’s nice enough, but he’s easily three times your size and very strong-minded.”
F-Left swallowed hard and nodded.
“F-Front,” he continued, “you’ll be with Coach Bailey. She’s a ten year veteran of the force, very solid leader.”
F-Front acknowledged this information with a curt nod.
“Remember, for your own safety, please wear your protective eyewear, as well as your earplugs, during and immediately after the jump. Both will disintegrate naturally once your body has adjusted to the new environment. Do not attempt to remove them prior to that point. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused.
“Any questions?” the squad leader asked.
The cadets glanced around at one another, looking disconcerted by what was clearly the forthcoming moment of truth. “No, sir,” they chorused back, although with less unity and conviction than before.
“You’ll be taking this chute here,” he said, pointing to a square void in the mist at their feet. “F-Front, you’re up first. On the count of three, ready?”
F-Front nodded nervously, stuffed his ear plugs into place, and donned his protective eyewear.
“One…two,” the squad leader counted down, holding his hand above his head as he spoke, “three!” he called, swinging his hand down on the final word. F-Front stepped forward and slipped through the mist and out of sight. “F-Left, you’re next.”
The cadet stumbled forward, stuck her ear plugs into place, and put on her protective eyewear. Immediately, her surroundings became muffled and hazy, as though she’d just been plunged into a pool of water. She took a deep, calming breath and, on the count of three, dropped into the chute at her feet.
The transparent tunnel enveloped her. Within it, all was calm and quiet. Just beyond the walls of the chute, misty blue and white shapes formed and then dissipated. She slid further and faster down the chute, until everything beyond it became a blur. After what seemed like a very long time, or perhaps no time at all, her rate of descent began to slow. The shaft ahead grew murky and dark. Trepidation crept back into the pit of her stomach. At last she came to a halt in front of a small, damp hatch. For reasons that she couldn’t explain, not even to herself, the hatch frightened her. For a moment, she considered staying right where she was. The chute was, after all, familiar and safe. She had no idea what lay beyond that hatch, and she was in no hurry to find out. What she failed to consider, however, was F-Right, who, moments later, came barreling down the chute behind her and knocked her quite unceremoniously through the hatch.
The light beyond was so bright that it easily penetrated her protective eyewear and made her eyes sting. She stumbled blindly forward, her feet snagging on the uneven ground. Almost immediately, she crashed into, and then onto, a warm lump that she recognized at once as F-Front. “Sorry,” she muttered, feeling humiliated by this inauspicious start to the mission.
Her apology was met with the muffled sound of loud snoring. It seemed incredible to her that at a moment such as this, in the middle of an important mission, F-Front could be fast asleep. Nevertheless, she had to admit that she too felt suddenly very tired. She wondered briefly if this new atmosphere was having some sort of sedative effect on the unit. Dragging herself back to her feet, she stumbled in a circle around her fellow cadet and fell face-forward into a heap beside him. Moments later, she too was snoring loudly.
For what seemed like weeks, the cadets were dogged by this same, nearly overpowering, sense of fatigue. They slept day and night, waking just long enough to accept the food that was offered, before falling back into a deep and dreamless sleep.
On the fifteenth day of her mission, cadet F-Left was awoken, most unusually, by the clear and distinct chatter of her fellow cadets. Upon opening her eyes, she realized that her protective eyewear, as well as the ear plugs, had at long last disintegrated. Her body seemed finally to have adjusted to the new environment.
She rose at once and joined the queue for breakfast. Afterward, she and the others were led out into the exercise yard, where they passed their time playing ball. Although the staff at the rendezvous camp was helpful and friendly, life in the barracks quickly fell into a bit of a dull routine. Breakfast was followed by an hour in the yard, during which time they usually played ball or ran, after which they were shunted back into their increasingly cramped quarters. Lunch came next, followed by another hour in the yard. Dinner was followed almost immediately by lights out.
After a further six weeks of this monotony, the transports finally began to arrive. F-Right was the first to leave, followed the very same day by F-Front. F-Left’s transport arrived just two days later. The driver was an amiable, almost excessively enthusiastic woman by the name of Deb, who chatted at, rather than with, F-Left as they drove along.
“I just can’t wait to introduce you to everyone,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at F-Left in the back seat. “Roger won’t be back until this evening, but Andy and Katie will be home very soon and they’re just dying to meet you.”
F-Left felt no need to interrupt Deb’s exuberant monologue and so she simply listened.
“I hope you get along with Jack,” she said. “I don’t know why you would though, no one really does. He’s a bit temperamental.”
While F-Left was intrigued by this topic, it was Deb’s next sentence that really made her ears perk up. “I’m sure you’ll get along with Bronco though.” Here, finally, was some reassurance that her mission was back on track. She tried to imagine her impatient new coach and the thought made her wish, just for a moment, that she could return to the boring barracks.
Nearly an hour later, cadet F-Left arrived at her new home base, which was comfortably furnished, if not entirely well organized. Coach Bronco was waiting to greet them at the door. Advanced in years, but no less intimidating for it, Coach Bronco towered over his young student. “Bronco,” Deb said kindly, “I’d like you to meet the newest member of the family. What do you think?”
Bronco circled the new recruit, prodding her firmly as he went. His look was stern, but not unfriendly. F-Left stood poker straight, giving every sign of deference to his authority. Upon completion of this protracted inspection, he gave his approval with a snort and a nod.
“Why don’t you take him out back and show him the yard?” Deb suggested, holding the door open for them.
Coach Bronco led the cadet past Deb and into an expansive yard, which contained an assortment of exercise equipment, all of which F-Left recognized from her training sessions back at base camp. Once outside, the teacher turned to address his student. “Nice to meet you, kid,” he said.
“Nice to meet you too,” she said, again standing poker straight. “Cadet F-Left reporting for duty, sir.”
The coach nodded. “Yes, well, that’s just your temporary designation. Once the rest of the team arrives, you’ll be given your permanent designation.”
F-Left had been informed of this back at base camp and was looking forward to her renaming ceremony. It was often accompanied, or so she was told, by a silver badge engraved with the recipient’s new designation. She glanced upward and caught sight of her coach’s badge glinting in the sunlight. It was very fancy indeed, with his name engraved in silver on the front and a red and white enameled cross on the back.
“Can I assume you’ve been trained on the use of this equipment?” he asked, inclining his head toward the perimeter of the exercise yard.
She pulled her eyes away from the badge and met his gaze. “I have sir, yes.”
“Did they brief you about Jack?” he asked, in a warning whisper that made the young cadet glance around nervously.
“Only that he can be a bit temperamental,” she said.
The coach let out a derisive snort. “That’s the understatement of the year. He’s Satan in a fur coat.”
“How dare you, Bronco,” a silky voice behind them hissed, “to promote such libel even before I’ve been properly introduced.”
“It’s only libel if it’s a lie, Jack,” her coach retorted.
The cadet spun around so quickly that she accidentally fell into the new arrival, knocking him backward off his feet.
He jumped up in the blink of an eye and lunged forward in a retaliatory strike that took F-Left completely by surprise. She recovered herself quickly; however, and was preparing to defend herself when the coach stepped between them.
Deb stuck her head out the open window. “Jack, you be nice now, you hear me?” she demanded.
Jack turned his back on all three of them and slinked off, looking haughty even in retreat.
Once he was out of earshot and Deb had disappeared back into the kitchen, the coach rounded on F-Left. “Now you listen to me,” he said. “Under no circumstances whatsoever are you ever to become violent with a teammate while you’re on this assignment. Do you understand me?” he barked.
“But, sir,” F-Left whimpered, “he was going to…”
“I don’t want to hear it. Your responsibility here is to serve and protect this unit. Let Deb and Roger deal with Jack.”
The cadet seemed on the verge of another protest, but seemed to think better of it when Coach Bronco took a step forward and glowered down at her diminutive frame.
“Fine,” she conceded at last.
“Your role here is a vital one,” he continued, “and you cannot undermine it with petty squabbling. You will be responsible for keeping the family on schedule, supervising Andy and Katie on the equipment,” he jerked his head for a second time at the equipment that lined the perimeter, “and for ensuring that Roger gets his exercise.”
The cadet looked concerned. “How do I do that?” she asked.
“It’s not complicated,” he said. “There’s a rope in the utility room. When he gets home in the evening, you wrap it around his hand and pull him around the neighborhood for an hour.”
“And how do I keep them on schedule?” she asked.
“You’ll need to wake Roger every morning at six. I’ve found that actually jumping right on top of him is the most effective method.”
“Won’t he be angry?” she asked, looking startled.
“Oh, you’d be surprised. He knows what a vital role we play, so you’ll be able to get away with quite a lot. He needs you. Keep that in mind and you’ll do alright. Once Roger’s awake, the rest of the family will generally follow suit. If not, feel free to repeat the procedure with the others.”
She nodded again.
“Your most important role though is one of emotional support. You’re going to be seeing this family through some pretty tough times and it’s critical that you keep up their morale.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Do you have any advice on how best to do that?”
“Lead by example,” he said. “You must always be loyal and energetic, enthusiastic and loving. It’s not always easy, but you must make it appear so.”
“Understood,” she said.
“I’ll be around for a while longer yet, so I’ll take you through it all before I go.”
“When are you due back at base?” she asked.
“That’ll be for the family to decide,” he said.
“You mean you have to wait for their permission?”
“Not exactly,” he said slowly, as though searching for a way to explain. “Departures can be difficult for a family unit. We have to try to make the transition as smooth as possible whenever we can. Occasionally a coach has to make an unplanned departure.”
“One of the other cadets in my group didn’t have a coach because of an unplanned departure,” F-Left put in quickly.
Bronco nodded solemnly. “It happens, but it’s definitely not ideal. That sort of thing can be very disruptive to the morale of the unit. Once you’re trained, I’ll start transitioning out, but we’ve still got some time.”
F-Left felt very relieved. However intimidating her new coach was, she was grateful for the opportunity to learn from him before his departure. “Have you been given a new assignment yet?” she asked.
Before he could respond, however, the kitchen door flew open and two very loud, very enthusiastic children pelted toward them.
At first, F-Left felt an almost overwhelming urge to defend herself. Instead, with Coach Bronco’s warning still ringing in her ears, she decided simply to brace for impact. She soon discovered, however, that she need not have worried. Not only were her new teammates friendly, they were downright affectionate. Andy picked her up at once, spun her around and planted kisses on both her cheeks. Before F-Left could even respond to this rather startling gesture, Katie joined them and repeated it. Both, as though afraid they’d hurt his feelings, then rushed to greet the coach with an equally enthusiastic, if somewhat less physical, display of affection.
F-Left heard the kitchen door open and close again. She glanced around to see Deb striding toward them across the yard. “I see you’ve all met our newest addition,” she said. “She needs a proper name. What shall we call her?”
The cadet recognized the traditional start of the naming ceremony and quickly stood at attention beside Coach Bronco.
“I like Daisy,” Katie said at once.
“Too girly,” Andy protested. “What about Mustang Sally?”
Deb frowned. “We already have a Bronco. I don’t think we need a Mustang as well.”
“Princess?” Katie asked hopefully.
Both Deb and Andy rejected this idea at once.
“What about Willow?” Andy suggested.
“Willow,” Deb repeated, glancing down at F-Left as though for her approval.
The cadet risked a glance at her coach, who nodded almost imperceptibly. F-Left, now Willow, gave an enthusiastic sideways salute.
“Look, she’s wagging her tail,” Katie observed with a laugh. “I think she likes it.”
“New addition to the family?” an unfamiliar voice called from the other side of the yard.
Deb walked over to greet an elderly man, who was leaning against the fence. “Hi, Paul,” she said. “Yeah, I just picked her up this morning.”
“How old?” he asked.
“Eight weeks,” she replied.
“Same breed as Bronco?”
“Yep, another Saint Bernard.”
“What’s his name?” the stranger asked.
“It’s a girl,” Katie corrected him at once.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, smiling. “What’s her name then?”
“Willow. We just now named her,” Katie replied.
“It was my idea,” Andy put in proudly.
“Well, it’s a good one,” the stranger said. “Has Roger seen her yet?”
Deb shook her head. “He’s not home yet, but it shouldn’t be long now.” She glanced at her watch.
“Does he know about her yet?” he asked shrewdly, raising an accusatory eyebrow.
Deb glanced down at the young cadet. “Not yet,” she admitted, “but who wouldn’t love a face like that?”
The old man laughed and shook his head, before heading back toward his own house.
“Kids, please keep an eye on the puppy. I have to get dinner ready.” She spied Jack creeping back into the yard. “Andy, honey, grab the cat, please. He was giving her a hard time earlier.”
Andy swooped down and picked up Jack, handing him over to Deb as she made her way back toward the kitchen.
“Willow, watch how high I can swing,” Katie called, running toward the exercise equipment. Both Bronco and Willow moved forward to watch.
“Everyone’s so friendly here,” Willow said to Bronco. “Isn’t it hard for you to think of leaving?”
“Harder for them than for me, I think. Don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly, noting the surprise on her face, “I love them all and I’ll definitely miss them, but I’ve been on this mission for seven years now. That’s quite a long time for someone like me, and they’ve got you here to help now. I know you’ll take good care of them. That’ll make it easier for me to move on.”
“Time for a new mission?” she asked.
He smiled. “What can I say? I’m a Saint. We live to serve.”