The old man adopted Kiddo in April at the suggestion of his eldest granddaughter. She told him a puppy would be good for him, what with a year of living alone under his belt. When she first offered the idea, just a short time after Julia went to the Lord and the walls of the house slowly became the canvass for a softly projected light manipulated as silent scenes of their former days together, he rejected it forthright. He saw Julia in every shadow cast in the hallway. He anticipated her coming back to bed when a pipe would creak in the bathroom in the middle of the night. She had not yet truly left. She lived in his tightly guarded memories of their lives together. Brodie originally dismissed the idea for fear of exhuming the memory of his late wife from their home. There was a high risk of losing the memories to another soul, however canine.
For the first year without his wife, Brodie had grown accustomed to staying awake as late as he could, pouring over old photographs in an attempt to catalogue his and his wife’s past in a photo album. It began as a simple project. One day his grandchildren would view the photographs, succinctly ordered and accurately captioned, and further appreciate this bough of their family tree. Its completion would bring with it a sense of closure on his and Julia’s life together. Brodie scoured every corner of the house looking for shreds of evidence he could use to remember her by. He found most of the pictures in shoeboxes Julia had placed in the floor of their closet, next to her small golden chest and its little keyhole. She had brought the chest with her the day she arrived by train into his town. He watched her stepping down onto the platform clutching at her necklace, her face puffed red, and he thought she might be second-guessing her choice to move from the town she knew and loved to marry a man she had only met once. They had fallen in love with each other’s words, sent miles and miles by way of the post office. When they embraced on the platform and he asked her if everything was all right, she told him everything was and how spectacular tomorrow would be. “And all the tomorrows,” he replied. The following day they were married and moved in to the house where they remained for the rest of her life. He always wanted to know what she kept in the box and why she never opened it. Julia answered never answered either question. It took a shouting match before he realized knowing the golden chest’s contents was less important than disrupting the peace of the household. Her secret went with her to the grave.
Collecting the material for the photo albums meant bringing back the memory of his lost letters. Within months of moving in to the house, which sat only a few hundred yards from the river, the rain fell for nearly a week straight and the basement flooded so only cellar steps were visible. When they first moved in, Brodie had set a box of some of his most precious keepsakes in on the floor of the basement. Most sacred were the hundreds of letters from Julia, which spanned nearly two years of courtship and included a scattering of photographs she had tucked carefully into the envelopes. He had been planning to unpack the box when he found the time. The flood found it first. He mourned the loss of those letters more now than ever. They would fill out the photo album beautifully, he thought. She would speak life—youthful and loving life—into the void within his heart. Instead of progressing on the project, Brodie spent nearly every night of the first year without her under the spell of memory.
Late springtime brought with its tepid greenness frequent phone calls and visits from his lovingly coercive granddaughter, wishing desperately for him to allow a companion into the home. Within a week after telling him puppy mill horror stories, his reluctance flickered out like the light projecting his memories of Julia on the walls of the house. With just a week remaining in April, he found himself leaving the animal shelter in the passenger’s seat of his granddaughter’s car with a jittery bundle of nerves named Kiddo, a coarse-haired Jack Russell pup, scurrying around on his lap.
The puppy brought into Brodie’s house a completely renovated routine. The late nights looking at old photographs had translated into late mornings. He would often sleep through breakfast and sometimes even miss lunchtime. On the first morning after Kiddo’s arrival, he woke to what would become his signature lick-nips—a darting swath of tongue with pinching front teeth following—planted upon his cheek and chin. Less than a minute of nagging had the old man up and out of bed to fill the little tin food dish. Brodie tried getting back in bed, but the lick-nips soon recommenced.
Thus began the duo’s early morning walks. Just behind the house stretched a shaded trail, bordered by long-abandoned train tracks and the water of the river. Brodie found it the obvious choice for burning off Kiddo’s early morning energy. Soon after the puppy came, a new routine took shape. Now, man and dog scarfed breakfast together before heading out for a sunrise walk along the tracks and river beneath the leafy canopy.
On a morning in early October, Kiddo, now twice the size as he’d been in April, had an abnormal amount of morning energy. Instead of stopping to turn around at their usual spot, Brodie on the decided to continue down the trail. For decades, a large section of the trail had been sectioned off after the flood that filled the newlywed couple’s basement had washed well beyond the riverbanks. Disregarding the posted warnings that the trail was closed, Brodie let the dog led him along the saturated path.
They hadn’t walked but a minute on the uneven trail when Brodie recognized the vague familiarity of a place he’d once known. The train station had not been large. Its building was sizable enough to sell tickets from, but could hold only a handful of people. The platform accommodated the small number of passengers and luggage boarding or leaving the train. Since she was gone, Brodie’s memories had been playing games of hide-and-seek. At times they were unavailable for days and other times they’d jump from nowhere and startle him. Most often, the old man’s memories played as a newsreel cut together by a maniacal editor—as soon as he would place the setting of one memory a splice would appear and it would cut to another time entirely. He began to wonder if the reel was starting up now, if he was really seeing the train station and the inception of his life with Julia. He knew this was real. The place smelled as it had all those years before. Only three walls rose from the crumbled foundation, the windows long ago smashed out by boys throwing stones. The planks of the platform were warped or plain not there, but as they walked nearer to the structure, his memory replaced all the missing lumber and windowpanes and gave it a fresh coat of powder blue paint. He watched Julia step down from the train and onto the platform with a gloved hand around the handle of the golden chest, the other gripping at her necklace, her face fraught with unease. His memory of the moment had been washed away with the flood waters that had destroyed her letters, but standing here and seeing again the look on her face reopened the wonder of what she was so afraid of in those steps and what secrets she had locked away in her golden chest.
Without warning, Kiddo darted past the jagged post that had once belonged to a wrought iron gate close to the tracks and hung a sharp left. The man held fast to the lead, but the tension released unexpectedly as the tether tore against the sharp metal. The jolt sent the old man tumbling backward, hands out behind him, into a patch of soft mud. Kiddo and whatever the hell animal they’d spooked up were nowhere to be seen.
His first thought was mediated by his granddaughter’s voice saying at his age he needs to be more careful. The thought was followed by the realization that his hand was touching something hard in the soft mud. He pulled himself up and after a brief assessment found he was uninjured. Before he stood up, he turned to see what he felt in the mud and pulled it from the ground.
By the time he had chunked the thick layer of clay away from the object, he realized just what he was holding. He considered the rusted piece of metal as he rubbed at with his fingers. He sent a small dap of spit on it’s shaft by way of his thin lips and continued to rub. When the last of the muck was cleared away, the object’s color perfectly matched that of the clay that had been entombing it for all these years. The man stared at it intently. A key. Clarity blossomed in his chest as he set free a solid bellow into the air. He was not a man of superstition and he nearly had given up the likelihood of fate, but holding that key in his hand he could feel the closeness of the last skin it had brushed against. He knew, instantly, how it fell from Julia’s necklace when she was stepping from the train.
Brodie did not struggle to get to his feet. Once upright, he brushed at the mud on his backside and blew a short whistle from his puckered lips. Kiddo bolted from the brush down from the overgrown platform and stopped in front of the man’s feet, panting heavily. The man tied the truncated leash to the dog’s collar and set off to the house propelled by nerve-bursting curiosity.
Kneeling down at the open closet door, he pulled the golden chest from Julia’s side, brushing against the bottom of several of her favorite dresses. He pulled the box up onto the foot of the bed and remained kneeling while he fished the object he discovered in the mud from his pocket. Like a child poised to say his bedtime prayers, the old man slid the key into the hole of the box. A turn later, he lifted the lid until the hinges held it vertical. He beheld inside a trove of their bygone courtship, hundreds of letters written in his hand for her eyes. He spent the rest of the day at the foot of the bed, reading word he’d written to her before she’d decided whole-heartedly to move from her home and marry him.
As the sun fell on the flowing river past the house and the railroad tracks the old man’s contemplations were interrupted. A coarse haired dog planted several lick-nips on his salty face, signaling dinnertime. Brodie rose and went to the kitchen where he started opening a can beef stew which he heated for Kiddo’s dinner. A hot meal was the least the old man could do to show his gratitude.