From the author: The stuffed dog abandoned on the side of the road looked harmless enough, but Ron never should've stopped to pick it up.Because sometimes a dog, real or not, isn't always man's best friend.
“Daddy, is that a stuffed dog on the side of the road?”
Upon hearing his daughter’s words, a cold pit opened up in the middle of Ron Garber’s stomach. He gripped the steering wheel tight and concentrated on keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead. If he could keep from looking, just for a few more moments, they’d drive past and he wouldn’t have to see whatever Lily was pointing at. If he didn’t see it, it couldn’t be real, and if wasn’t real, he could forget about it.
“Daddy! Over there! Look!”
Lily was only seven, still young enough to be relegated to the back and be forced to endure the humiliation of a booster seat. But despite her age, she had a mind sharp as a scalpel. She’d know something weird was going on if he refused to look, and she could be tenacious as a pack of pitbulls when she wanted to. She wouldn’t stop asking him why he didn’t look until she got a satisfactory answer. He had no choice. He had to look.
It’s probably nothing, he told himself. Just a toy some kid had been playing with and left outside, temporarily forgotten.
He turned to look in the direction Lily had pointed. On the opposite side of the road, sitting on the gravel shoulder, was a three-foot high stuffed St. Bernard. Brown and white fur, floppy ears, red-felt tongue hanging out, black plastic eyes. Eyes that did more than not reflect light but which seemed to absorb it, feed on it, drink it in and swallow it down.
Ron hadn’t seen the toy dog in . . . in . . . A while, he decided. But he recognized it instantly. His nostrils filled with its musty odor – the result of the animal having been left out in the rain overnight once when Ron was only slightly younger than Lily. Though he continued to hold tight to the steering wheel, his fingers felt the dog’s artificial fur, and he whispered a single word.
“Biff . . .”
“Let’s stop and get the doggy!” Lily said. “He looks lonely!”
Ron’s foot pressed down on the accelerator and their Toyota Sierra minivan flashed passed the toy.
“Daddy, we can’t just leave him there! Someone might steal him! Or he might get hit by a car!” Lily had always been a sensitive, highly empathetic child, and she sounded honestly worried.
Ron reached up and tilted the rearview mirror so he couldn’t look back and see Biff.
“No need to worry, honey. Whoever the dog belongs to will come back and get it soon.” He tried to keep his voice as normal-sounding as he could, but his words came out edged with tension. He glanced over his shoulder at Lily to gauge her reaction, but his daughter wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at the repositioned rearview mirror and frowning.
“Besides, there’s a lot of traffic, Lily. I’m not sure I’d be able to turn around.” Only partially a lie. Ash Creek was hardly the largest town in Ohio, but it was almost the lunch hour, and a lot of people had left work to pick up something to eat. There were a number of fast-food joints in this part of town, so there were a lot of cars on the road. Not so many that he couldn’t turn their minivan around if he really wanted to, but even as smart as Lily was, he hoped she wouldn’t realize that. She was only seven, after all. Still, before she could say anything, he added, “I have to get to my appointment on time. It’s an important opportunity, and I can’t afford to miss it.”
This wasn’t a lie. True, he’d made sure they’d left early enough to give him a comfortable cushion of extra time to get to Coleman Publishing, but he didn’t want to squander that time by making any unnecessary stops. He glanced at the black portfolio case propped against the passenger seat next to him. Important opportunity was an understatement. It was the break he’d worked so long and hard for.
He’d been at his home office earlier that morning, sitting at his drawing board laying out ads for a newspaper insert for a local grocery when he’d gotten the call. Kevin Armstrong, art director for Coleman Publishing, had finally gotten around to reviewing the samples Ron had sent several weeks ago. Armstrong had liked what he saw and told Ron that Coleman had been approached by a local church to print a line of Christian-themed children’s books to use in Sunday school. Armstrong thought Ron might be the perfect choice to illustrate them. The gig wouldn’t pay much, and Ron wasn’t religious by any means, but if he landed the job, he’d get his first professional credit illustrating kids’ books. A credit he could use as a calling card when approaching national publishers.
Because Ron was a freelance commercial artist who worked out of his home, it fell to him to care for Lily while her mother was at work. Normally, it wasn’t much of a problem. Sure, his productivity had suffered to a degree, but he loved spending time alone with his daughter. Doing design work for ads, pamphlets, and brochures might’ve paid the bills, but for years he’d dreamed of illustrating children’s books. And now that it looked like that dream might be coming true at last, he’d had no choice but to bring Lily with him. They had no friends who were home during the day who could watch her, and Lily was too young to stay home by herself, even if only for an hour or two. Ron had tried calling Growing Minds Discovery Garden (evidently daycare was too déclassé a term for them) where they sometimes left Lily. But Lily had a slight cold and was running a low fever, so they wouldn’t take her. Ron had told the director of Growing Minds about his meeting with Armstrong and that other than a bit of a runny nose, Lily was acting perfectly fine. The woman had said that while she sympathized with Ron’s situation, rules were rules, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Frustrated, he’d called Julia at work and asked her to tell her bosses that she was sick so she could come home and watch Lily for him. That had been a mistake. They’d nearly gotten into a fight over the phone. Julie had only recently returned to work as a paralegal, and she didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize her job. She worked for Sloan and Sloan, husband and wife lawyers who shared a practice. While Mr. Sloan was easy-going enough, his wife was a real hard-ass. No way did Julia want to risk the woman’s wrath by lying to her so she could skip out of work. Couldn’t he call the publisher and reschedule?
No, he couldn’t, he told her. That would be unprofessional.
He could almost hear her shrug over the phone. “Then you’ll just have to take her along, I guess.”
He expected Lily to protest his excuses for not stopping to pick up the stuffed dog, but she said nothing. He thought maybe she was pouting, so – judging they were far enough away from the spot where Lily had spotted the stuffed St. Bernard – he readjusted his rearview mirror so he could see her. But when he saw her reflection, he experienced a shock that was equal parts surprise and stunned recognition. The image in the mirror was Lily, all right, but not the seven-year-old girl with bright eyes, round face, button nose, and curly strawberry-blonde hair. It was Lily as a baby, not quite a year old. Strapped snugly into her carseat, wearing a one-piece outfit that left her chubby pinks arms and legs bare, fine curly wisps of hair on her head, nothing like the thick, rich locks she was destined to have. Lily’s pudgy face was red, eyes squeezed close, mouth open wide. She looked as if she was crying, but Ron heard no sound.
He blinked and Lily was suddenly seven again, sitting on her booster seat and looking at him expectantly.
“Didn’t you hear what I said, Daddy? I said maybe we could pick up the doggie on the way back.”
Feeling disoriented and a trifle dizzy, Ron said, “We’ll see,”
He was nervous about meeting with Mr. Armstrong, that was all. Coupled with his artistic imagination, his anxiety had caused him to momentarily “see” a memory. Weird, maybe, but nothing to be worried about.
He faced forward again and concentrated on his driving, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard a baby crying.
Ron was too young when he got Biff to remember the first time he saw the toy that, in many ways, was to become the best friend he’d ever had. But his mother had told the story to him often enough over the years that he felt he could recall every detail.
It had been his first birthday, and his parents had done all the usual things. They’d put him in his high chair, turned off the kitchen light, and brought out a cake with a single thick candle shaped like a numeral one on top. The candle was lit and Ronnie’s eyes widened as his mother sat the cake down on the table in front of him – but not too close. Wouldn’t want Baby getting burned. His parents sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and he smiled at the tune, though he couldn’t quite understand the words. Then both his Mommy and Daddy blew out the candle flame. Ronnie liked looking at the flickering warm glow, and he was sad to see it go bye-bye.
Mommy cut the cake while Daddy took pictures. Mommy put Ronnie’s slice on a tiny paper plate and set it on his highchair tray. He squooshed the cake with his tiny fingers, getting more of it on his bib, face, and in his hair than in his mouth. Mommy spooned a bit of ice cream into his mouth and he dutifully swallowed it, only to make a horrified face at the unfamiliar sensation of cold in his mouth, following instantly by tears. Mommy washed his hands, then Daddy took him out of the high chair and carried him into the living room. A half dozen objects were stacked on the coffee table, all wrapped in brightly colored paper. But Ronnie barely glanced at them. His gaze was drawn to the large brown-and-white thing sitting on the floor next to the coffee table.
Daddy put him down on the floor and Ronnie took several unsteady steps toward the big fuzzy thing before giving up and falling to his hands and knees so he could make better speed. He swiftly crawled over to the fascinating object, reached out, and grabbed a handful of brown-and-white fur. It was so soft . . . He buried his face in its fur and grabbed hold of it, squeezing as hard as he could. It was soft like Mommy, big like Daddy, and warm, too. But it didn’t pull away when he squeezed it, didn’t say “Ouch, that’s too hard, sweetie!” Ronnie instinctively understood that whatever this furry thing was, it was his and it would accept whatever he did without question, complaint, or reprimand.
From that moment on, Ronnie cried whenever anyone tried to separate him from his new friend. It was an “Oggy” he eventually learned, and he wanted his Oggy to go wherever he went, wanted it in the crib with him when he slept, despite how much room it took up, to protect him from the things that moved sinuous and silent in the dark. Wanted it sitting on one of the kitchen chairs when he ate, sitting by his side as they watched cartoons, looking on with its black plastic eyes while he got a bath. If he went outside, Oggy had to go outside. When Ronnie had to come back in, so did Oggy. This meant a lot of extra work for his parents, as Ronnie was too small to carry Oggy around by himself. But eventually Ronnie grew and he was able to drag Oggy along with him, giving his Mommy and Daddy a bit of badly needed relief. But Ronnie didn’t notice or care about his parents’ reaction. All he cared about was spending time with Oggy.
Ron glanced at the digital clock on the van’s dashboard and gritted his teeth. 11:47. There’d been a wreck on Everson Road, not much more than a fender-bender, really – but he’d had to wait in a mini traffic jam until a state trooper and a tow truck had cleared the vehicles involved from the street. He judged he could still make his appointment with Mr. Armstrong, but his margin for error was decidedly thinner than it had been.
“Daddy? I don’t feel so good.”
Those were the last words Ron wanted to hear. He felt like groaning, but he didn’t want to hurt his daughter’s feelings, so he worked on keeping his voice calm as he asked, “What’s wrong, honey?”
“My tummy feels all shivery.”
Ron bit back a curse. Lily had a tendency to get carsick, but usually only on long trips. He’d taken precautions, though. It was hot out today, but he had the minivan’s air conditioning on, and though he’d been hurrying to make up the time lost to the accident delay, he’d tried to avoid accelerating or braking too rapidly and cutting corners too sharply when he turned. Still, it looked as if his precautions had failed.
Of course they did, he thought. That’s how the universe works, right? The more you needed to avoid something, the more likely it was to happen.
He checked the time again. 11:50. He couldn’t afford to stop, but how could he keep going, knowing Lily was in discomfort? And – to be cold-bloodedly practical about it – how could he continue on to his meeting with Armstrong if Lily threw up all over herself? He’d have to take her home for sure then.
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Lily’s pale, frightened face looking back at him.
And even if he was cruel enough to make her sit in her own sick while he kept his appointment, the vomit-stench would attach itself to him. He could just imagine introducing himself to Armstrong and trying to explain why he stank of his daughter’s puke.
“Don’t worry, honey. I’ll find somewhere to pull over.”
He saw a Hamburger Haven coming up on his right. He signaled, eased up on the gas, then gently pressed down on the brake. He turned into the restaurant’s parking lot so slowly that the person behind him blasted his horn. Ron was tempted to give the sonofabitch the finger, but Lily was with him, and he didn’t want to be a poor role model, so he resisted. There was a parking space near the entrance, and Ron eased the minivan into it and cut the engine. Trying not to think about the time, he got out of the van and hurried around to the side and slid open the side door. He hoped the absence of motion combined with exposure to fresh air would settle Lily’s stomach, but it was so damned hot out, he wondered if he should’ve left the door closed and the AC running. He’d only been outside for a few seconds and already beads of sweat were forming on his skin. He was wearing a nice shirt, tie, slacks, and dress shoes for his interview with Armstrong, and he worried about getting sweat stains on his clothes. Not much he could do about it, he supposed.
“How are you doing, honey?”
Lily was still pale and her breathing was coming in ragged pants. She kept swallowing, too, fighting to keep her stomach from emptying its contents.
“I . . . I’ll be okay, Daddy.” She attempted a smile, but it came out as a grimace.
Ron was overwhelmed by a sudden swell of both pride and guilt. His little girl was doing her best to be brave because she knew how important his meeting with Armstrong was for her daddy. He was proud of her for trying to act so grown-up, but he felt guilty that he’d been more concerned about wasting time stopping then about his little girl’s physical condition.
He unbuckled her seatbelt. “C’mon, let’s go inside where it’s cool.”
Lily was beginning to sweat now too, and she gave him a weak but grateful smile as she climbed out of the van. He took her elbow to steady her, slid the door closed, then locked the van using his keychain remote. Then together they entered the restaurant.
A blast of cold air hit them as soon as they walked in. Too cold, Ron thought. His own stomach lurched at the sudden extreme shift in temperature, and he doubted the transition made Lily feel any better. Worse yet was the smell inside the restaurant – hot grease, smoke, and frying meat. Lily’s face went chalk-white. Without saying anything, she turned and fled toward the women’s restroom. Ron felt equal amounts of concern and frustration, the latter making him feel even more guilty than he had before.
This Hamburger Haven was set up like all the others Ron had even been in. A front counter where apathetic teenagers and bored retirees took and filled orders, tables and chairs where customers could sit while they gobbled down the muck the place passed off as food, and a play area outside with more seats and a configuration of plastic tunnels for small children to crawl around inside like hamsters. Ron disliked fast food in general – it always upset his stomach – but he had fond memories of bringing Lily here when she was little, of taking her to the play area and letting her explore the tubes. Not too far in, though, for she wasn’t even a year yet and just starting to learn to walk.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He turned toward the voice, startled out of his memories. A stout matronly women in her fifties wearing a blue Hamburger Haven uniform stood before him. Her nametag said Gloria and beneath that Manager.
Ron was puzzled by the woman coming up to speak to him. Since when did Hamburger Haven get so proactive about customer service? Gloria stared at him as if there was something wrong with the way he looked. Her nose wrinkled and she turned her head slightly aside, as if he had offensive body odor. But he was wearing clean clothes, and he’d showered this morning and put on deodorant. Sure, he’d started sweating outside, but not that much.
“I’m just waiting for my daughter,” he said. “She’s in the restroom.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed with suspicion, and Ron understood why she had come out from behind the counter to check on him. The way Lily had run from him must’ve looked as if she were trying to escape a captor.
He gave Gloria what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “She gets a little carsick sometimes.”
She frowned. “I didn’t see you come in with anyone.”
“Maybe you weren’t looking. There’s a lot of people lined up at the counter.” Which was true. It was the lunch rush, after all.
Gloria’s frowned deepened into a scowl. “Unless you’re going to buy something, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Ron was starting to get angry. This woman was acting like he was some kind of dangerous nut instead of a father doing his best to take care of his child.
“As soon as my daughter’s okay, we’ll get out of here. All right?”
The woman looked as if she were going to say something further, but then she glanced at all the customers waiting to place orders, and she turned away and headed back to the counter.
Ron was glad to see her go, and he’d be even more glad to get the hell out of here, after –
The women’s restroom door opened and Lily came out. She was still pale, though not nearly as white as when she’d gone in. Her face was wet, and at first he thought she was dripping with sweat, but then he realized she’d splashed water on her face.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?”
“Better.” Her voice was shaky, but not as weak as it had been. “I think I’m okay to go now.”
He felt a surge of hope, and he immediately squashed it. Lily was infinitely more important than any illustrating gig he might get.
“Why don’t we sit down for a little bit until you feel all the way better? I can get you something to drink, maybe some Sprite to settle your stomach.”
“Really, Daddy, I’m okay. Let’s –”
“I asked you to leave.” It was Gloria again, only this time she wasn’t alone. She’d brought a tall, beefy teenage boy with her.
Ron’s anger rose, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting at the woman. “I’m not sure my daughter is feeling well enough yet.”
The teenage boy – whom Gloria had doubtless brought along for whatever muscle he could provide – gave his manager a confused, questioning look.
Gloria didn’t glance back at the boy. She kept her gaze focused on Ron. “I don’t want any trouble. Just go. Now.” She didn’t sound mad. She sounded scared, and Ron couldn’t figure out why.
Lily tugged at his arm. “Let’s go, Daddy? Please?”
Now Lily sounded scared, and though Ron wanted to tear into the manager and give her hell for treating him this way, he didn’t want to subject his daughter to any more of the woman’s weirdness.
He gave Gloria a parting glare. “Fine. Whatever. But see if we ever come back here again.”
As Ron and Lily headed for the door, he heard the teenager say “We?” but he didn’t turn back. They exited into a thick, syrupy heat that made Ron feel queasy. He looked to Lily to check how she was handling the abrupt temperature shift and was surprised to see a big grin on her face.
“Look, Daddy!” She pointed toward the van.
Sitting on the sidewalk in front of the vehicle, facing toward them, was Biff.
Ronnie was nine. He sat in his driveway, legs crossed, hands resting limply in his lap, ever-faithful St. Bernard sitting next to him. His Oggy was somewhat worse for the wear after eight years of accompanying Ronnie on his adventures. His colors had faded, and there were bare patches in his fur. A number of his seams had split over the years and had been sewn back up by Ronnie’s mother, leaving bits of thread here and there. The plastic eyes had been scratched from too much hard play, giving them a somewhat milky cast, like an old person’s cataracts.
He sat there, doing nothing, thinking nothing. Eventually Jerry Klauser came riding by on his new ten-speed. Jerry lived down the block, the youngest of seven kids, though he was a year older than Ronnie. For reasons that Ronnie had never been able to fathom, Jerry thought he was real hot stuff and teased Ronnie whenever he got the chance.
Ronnie hoped Jerry would ride on past, but knew he wouldn’t.
Jerry rolled up to the end of Ronnie’s driveway and put his feet down to stop.
“Hey, it’s Ronnie and his Oggy-Woggy!”
Ronnie didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, especially Jerry Klauser, but he knew the taunts would only continue and get worse if he didn’t respond.
“His name’s Biff.”
As Ronnie had gotten older, he’d come to realize what a babyish name Oggy was. He’d tried out other names: Champ, Killer, and – least imaginatively of all – Bernard. But one day his parents had left him with a babysitter while they went out to the movies. He watched TV while she did homework, and he noticed she’d used an eraser to remove parts of the cover, creating white lines like writing. The lines said SUZE AND BROOKE: BFF.
“What’s Biff mean?” he’d asked.
Suze had been puzzled for a moment, but when she figured out what he meant, she laughed. “It’s B-F-F. It stands for Best Friends Forever.”
Ronnie thought that was a great way to describe him and his St. Bernard and so that day Oggy became Biff.
“Biff is a stiff!” Jerry said in a singsong voice. “I’d like to throw him off a cliff!”
Ronnie’s jaw tightened and his hands clenched into fists. “Shut up and leave me alone, Jerry.”
“What’s wrong? The baby can’t take a joke? Are you gonna start to cry? Maybe Oggy will give you a kiss and make it all better.”
Ronnie rose to his feet. “I told you his name is Biff.” He could feel the pressure of tears behind his eyes, and he fought to hold them in. He didn’t want to give Jerry the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
Jerry’s eyes hardened. “You wanna make something of it, Baby?” His words seemed false somehow, as if he were repeating something he’d heard on TV. Jerry had never tried to pick a fight before, but he sounded serious. Ronnie had never been in a fight, but the way he felt now, he’d almost welcome it. He took a step toward Jerry but then thought better of it.
“Just go away. My grandma died this morning.”
Though all Ronnie had done was talk, Jerry reacted as if he’d punched him in the stomach. His eyes went wide and his mouth fell open.
Ronnie had never used a swear word before, but it seemed only appropriate now.
“Aw, geez. I’m . . . sorry.”
Jerry looked at him a moment longer, as if he were trying to think of something else to say but couldn’t. Finally he put his feet back on his bike pedals and rode off down the sidewalk.
Ronnie’s mom was inside the house, lying on her bed, crying. She’d been there all day, ever since Aunt Karen had called with the news of Grandma’s death. Dad was still at work, and though he’d told Mom he’d try to come home early, he didn’t know if his boss would let him. So Ronnie had been left alone with his grief all morning.
No, not alone. Never. Not so long as he had Biff. Ronnie sat back down next to his friend – the only real friend he’d ever had. He grabbed Biff and held him tight as the tears he could no longer hold back flooded forth.
“It was the same dog, Daddy! He followed us!”
Ron drove five miles over the speed limit. It was 11:57, three minutes before he was scheduled to meet with Mr. Armstrong, and he still had several miles to go to reach Coleman Publishing. He was going to be late, there was no helping that now, but maybe he wouldn’t be too late.
“It couldn’t be the same one, and it sure as hell couldn’t have followed us. It’s stuffed for Christ’s sake!” He instantly regretted using such harsh language when speaking to his daughter, but he was so goddamned pissed off. Over Lily’s protests, he’d taken the St. Bernard – which was not Biff, he kept telling himself – into the Hamburger Haven to tell the manager that someone had abandoned the toy outside her restaurant. The woman had vehemently refused to take the dog from him, and had shouted for him to get the fuck out before she called the cops. Everyone in the restaurant – employees and customers alike – had looked at him as if he were insane, and so he’d plopped the stuffed down that was not Biff down on the counter and left.
“I tell you what, honey. If you really want a stuffed dog, I’ll take you to the toy store after my meeting and you can pick out whichever one you want, no matter how big. How does that sound?”
“But I don’t want any old dog,” she whined. “I want that one!”
Ron gritted his teeth and held his tongue. At least her carsickness had passed, he told himself. He thought her heard the sound of a baby crying softly then, but it seemed so faint and far away that it had to be his imagination. The sound soon faded away, as if the child had tired itself out and fallen asleep. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Lily sat looking out her window, lower lip pushed out in a little girl pout. If she’d heard the baby crying, she didn’t show it. At least she wasn’t crying. That was something to be thankful for. It had been a hard morning for her as well. He understood that and vowed to do his best to make it up to her – after his meeting.
They drove on in silence for the next few minutes, and Ron tried to remain calm as the digital clock moved from 11:57 to 58, 59, and then to noon. He was now officially late.
But there, coming up on the right, was the entrance to Coleman Publishing. He remember the blue sign standing up in the grass out front, remembered the white letters that spelled out the company’s name, including – in smaller letters below – est. 1967. The colors were a bit faded now, but –
He frowned. What was he thinking? He’d never been here before, had mailed his art samples to Mr. Armstrong. He’d probably driven past on occasion, but he’d never really noticed the place, certainly not to the point where he’d recognize changes in the sign’s colors. He was probably remembering a different sign, a different company, getting the memories mixed up. Yeah, that was it. Had to be.
He slowed, signaled, and turned into the entrance.
“Looks like we made it, kiddo!” He felt suddenly light, cheerful, all anxiety drained away. The clock said 12:02. Late, but only a little. Mr. Armstrong probably wouldn’t even notice. He glanced up at the rearview mirror to see how Lily was doing. She stared straight ahead, eyes widening with horror.
“Daddy, look out!”
He lowered his gaze and through the windshield he saw a large brown-and-white shape dash across the driveway right in front of their van. Felt the heavy thump more than he heard it. He slammed on the brakes, squealing tires blending with Lily’s screams.
Ron stood in his bedroom, looking at the two suitcases and bulging duffle bag sitting on his bed. For the dozenth time he took a mental inventory of everything he’d packed, and for the dozenth time he decided he hadn’t forgotten anything. He knew he was stalling, and that his mom and dad knew it too, but neither of them had come in to tell him it was getting late and they should get on the road. He appreciated that.
He was excited about leaving for college, was looking forward to moving into the dorm, starting his art classes, getting a chance to see what it was like to live on his own. Finally starting his adult life. He knew he wasn’t leaving home for good, not really. He’d be back for holidays and summers. But this was the last time this would he his room, the place where he lived. From now on he’d only be visiting.
He hadn’t thought it would be so hard to say goodbye to a place, to let go of all the memories that filled the room like light and air. But it was. And there was one memory that was hardest of all to let go of.
Biff sat on the floor next to his dresser, a fine coating of dust on his fur. The stuffed dog leaned sideways, head flopped over at an angle, its stuffing having clumped up and settled in odd places over the years. Biff had been sitting in this position since Ron started junior high, and he hadn’t touched it since. He’d outgrown the need for make-believe friends. But then again, he hadn’t stuck Biff in the closet with all the other toys he never played with anymore. And whenever his mom made noises about giving Biff to Goodwill or worse, just throwing him out, Ron wouldn’t hear of it. Maybe Ron hadn’t needed Biff the same way as when he’d been little, but that didn’t mean he didn’t need him at all.
Ron went over to the dresser and crouched down in front of Biff, just like he was a real dog. Feeling only a little foolish, but still glad no one was here to see him, he reached out and scratched the top of Biff’s head.
“I guess this is it, old buddy. I won’t see you again until Thanksgiving. I . . . want to thank you. You’ve been a good friend to me.” He smiled. “Tell you what. I ever have a kid, I’ll give you to him or her and you can be their friend. What do you think of that?”
Biff didn’t respond. He never had. After all, he was just a stuffed animal. But if Biff had been alive, Ron liked to think his old friend would’ve been pleased.
Ron stood in front of the van, telling himself that he wasn’t seeing what he thought he was seeing. Lily knelt on the ground, holding the crimson-splattered body of Biff to her chest, tears streaming from her eyes, her small body wracked by sobs. The animal that had run in front of the van had been a living dog, a real dog, Ron was certain of that. But the tattered wet thing his daughter held was the stuffed St. Bernard from his childhood. The impact had split open the seam that ran from Biff’s neck, down his chest, and across his belly. Wads of gray stuffing that looked too much like internal organs protruded from the wound, along with thick red fluid that looked like blood but couldn’t possibly be.
“You killed him!” Lily wailed.
Ron struggled to find words to comfort his daughter, but his thoughts were sluggish and he felt a throbbing pain at the base of his skull. Still, he had to say something.
“He can’t be dead, honey. He was never alive. You can’t kill something that never lived . . .”
Lily kept on sobbing and Ron doubted she’d heard him. His entire head was pounding now and a wave of vertigo washed over him, causing his gut to twist with nausea. Something was seriously wrong here, and he instinctively understood that he had to get Lily away from this place before –
Ron turned to see a bald man with a salt-and-pepper goatee hurrying toward them down the driveway, coming from the direction of the Coleman Publishing building. The man was tall, thin, and wore wire-frame glasses. He had on a gray suit and a tie that – even from this distance – Ron could see sported a design of tiny interlocking paint palettes. Ron had never seen the man before . . . had he? But he recognized the voice. It belonged to Mr. Armstrong.
Ron felt a surge of panic. He couldn’t let Mr. Armstrong see him like this! How could he ever explain? Sorry, sir, but I seem to have run over and killed a stuffed animal from my childhood. Most embarrassing.
He put his hand on Lily’s shoulder and gently squeezed.
“C’mon, honey. We have to go. We can’t –”
“Mr. Garber!” Armstrong called again. He was much closer now, and Ron’s panic gave way to fatalism. It was too late . . . in so many ways. He gave Lily a last squeeze before turning to meet Armstrong.
As the man reached them, sweat running down the sides of his face, breath coming hard from half-running the whole way, Ron said, “I know this looks bad, Mr. Armstrong, but I can –”
“Mr. Garber, when you called this morning, I told you not to come. You know I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for your situation, but you cannot keep doing this. I don’t want to call the police again, but I will if I have to.”
The man sounded at once sympathetic and exasperated, and Ron had no idea what he was talking about.
“What happened was a terrible thing, Mr. Garber, but it was six years ago. I’m not going to be insensitive and tell you to get over it. I can’t begin to imagine the pain you’ve experienced. But you’ve got to come to grips with what happened. Can’t you see that?”
Ron felt pressure building inside his head, so intense that he feared it might explode any moment. “I . . . I don’t . . .”
And then the pressure, the pain, the confusion vanished, and Ron remembered.
Remembered driving to his appointment with Mr. Armstrong six years ago, on a day even hotter than this one. Lily in the back, not quite a year old, sitting in her car seat, Biff next to her. His childhood friend, now his daughter’s companion, confidant, and guardian. Lily with her fever and without a babysitter, crying all the way to Coleman Publishing, falling asleep at last as he pulled into the parking lot. Ron trying to decide what to do: bring Lily inside and risk her waking up and squalling in the middle of his interview with Armstrong? He told himself she needed the sleep, that he wouldn’t be long, that he’d leave the windows cracked, that she would be all right. After all, Biff was there to watch over her, wasn’t he?
The meeting went well and Ron got the job. But when he returned to the van, Lily wasn’t all right. She was never going to be all right again.
Armstrong found him screaming his grief as he tore Biff apart with his bare hands. After all these years, his whole fucking life, his best friend had let him down when he’d needed him most. It was Biff’s fault, not his. Never his.
Ron realized he couldn’t hear Lily crying anymore. He turned to look at her and saw exactly what he feared he would. Nothing. No Lily, no Biff. No stuffing, no blood. Just empty, clear asphalt in front of the van’s tires. The van, which looked older, scratched, dented, and badly in need of a wash. Ron looked down at his clothes and saw they were filthy as well, wrinkled and stained. He examined his hands. His nails were long, cracked, discolored. He reached up to his face, felt his unkempt beard, his long scraggly hair. He inhaled and smelled his own foulness. Now he knew why the people in the Hamburger Haven had reacted to him the way they had. He’d gone in alone, looking like this, talking to a daughter who had died long ago.
He ran his fingers over his sweat-slick face. “I’m sorry, Mr. Armstrong.”
The profound pity in the other man’s gaze was far worse than anger or revulsion. Ron shuffled back toward the van’s open driver’s door, climbed in, and shut it behind him. Mr. Armstrong stood and watched as Ron put the vehicle in reverse and began to back up.
Ron sat at a picnic table in the park, art portfolio on the seat next to him, sketch paper open on the table. As he drew, he thought. In a way, Biff had tried to protect him by preventing him from keeping his appointment with Mr. Armstrong – and from having to remember. Sure, Biff had been a hallucination, just like seven-year-old Lily, the age she would’ve been if she’d lived. But maybe Biff was the part of his mind that wanted to get better, to break the cycle he was trapped in. Maybe he was ready to go back to therapy, maybe he’d even call his ex-wife. He and Julia had barely spoken since Lily’s death. Maybe it was time they did.
His thoughts were interrupted by the deep, sonorous bark of a large dog.
“Daddy, look! I taught Biff a new trick!”
Ron looked up. Lily pointed her index finger at the St. Bernard and said, “Bang!”
Biff fell onto his side and rolled over, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. Lily giggled in delight and ran over and gave her friend a hug. Bill’s tail thumped happily on the grass.
Ron smiled and looked back down at the picture he’d been sketching: a little girl playing with a St. Bernard in the park on a bright summer day. It was just a sketch now, but he thought it was good enough to finish. It might even turn out to be good enough to put in his portfolio. He hoped so. It would be nice to have something new to show Mr. Armstrong at their next meeting.
This story originally appeared in Imaginary Friends, DAW Books, 2008.