He sat down at the base of the stairs, expectant. He was poised, back legs tucked neatly under his hind-end, tail wagging slowly to the echoes of the wind. I stared at him. He stared back. We held each other's gaze.

I was living in a Californian bungalow built by the hands of my grandfather in 1920. It wasn't our family home back then, but when it came on the market three years ago I was smitten. I wanted a little bit of history to call home. It was nostalgic. He had told us stories of the neighbourhood, back when he was a poor construction worker who couldn't afford these tree-lined streets. When I came to the open-inspection, I had run my hands along the freshly-painted weatherboards. My granddad was here, I thought. My family could be whole again.

It was a sunny autumn day. The weather had not yet turned brisk yet the leaves had begun their journey from green to yellow, to ochre, to brown. The breeze was enough to fan that faint sweat off my upper lip, but not so much that I was forced to grab sweater or a blanket from indoors. It was peaceful.

I was reading a novel that had been sitting on my shelf for a year, desperate to be read. But I'd been told it was a thriller and I wouldn't be able to put it down. It was a rare and precious day off work. I had the whole afternoon to myself. I was both enthralled by the words racing in front of my eyes and cognisant of how I was both me and the main characters. I too, for these hours, could run swiftly to save the good from the evil. I could solve ancient mysteries. I could be the hero our world needed. That was, of course, until a small bark startled me.

It was I who cocked her head to one side. I who got up, placing my book on the side table I'd acquired when my grandmother died, a lasting reminder of the most solid part of my childhood. It was a heavy, marble beast that survived the storm that destroyed our first home, all those years ago when my mother and I lived with her parents. It was a reminder of the simple things and of all the things before life got tough. Who are you, I wondered, while walking towards the dog. He just looked up, as if he had always known me. As if I had raised him from a pup and should be happy that he'd come home.

Tentatively, I offered him my hand. He licked it softly and I could swear he smiled. It was I who sat on the stoop of my home, and he who turned around to force his behind safely between my knees. There he sat, watching the Saturday traffic cruise by. He would prick his ear when a bird called and turn his head toward me if I stopped stroking his head. I missed you, his eyes said, though we'd never met before.

Who are you, I wondered again.

I had hoped his collar would hold clues as to his home. But there was no phone number. There was just a little black heart engraved in cursive with, "Rupert." I grabbed my keys and, as if he knew where we were going, he meandered towards my car, an unreasonably large SUV for a thirty-something living alone in suburbia. He nuzzled at the back, excited to hop in.

I hadn't seen Dr Phillips for many years. The last time I had seen him, I had been holding my pet rabbit in my hands, tearful, wondering if anything could be done for Snuffles, though she was obviously in rigor mortis. That had been twenty years ago. It seemed the man was still working though the years had taken their toll. His wrinkles were deeper, his white coat had grown baggy where there used to be strong shoulders. He seemed tired in a way that a good night's rest would not fix. I don't think he remembered me, or Snuffles, but when I told him the story he nodded in recognition. I imagine he does that to all of us, a well-practiced caring eye. Oh yes, Snuffles, what a good little rabbit she was. Dr Phillips, I said, I found this dog. Well, really, the dog found me. This afternoon, while I was reading. He's lost. Can you see if he's microchipped? Can we find his owners?

Dr Phillips gave me another long, slow look. It was a look that said there were too many words and he was too exhausted to know all the details of my day. Microchip checking, though, was easy. We scanned Rupert up and down to no avail. He had no chip. He had no number. Dr Phillips told me that they could take him to the pound for safe keeping and put a notice out for his owners. The pound, I squealed, afraid of what would happen to my new friend. I was taking Rupert home.

Not having pets, my house was not well-equipped for a fully-grown golden retriever. We made a trip to the pet store. In my enthusiasm buying bedding and dog food, I ordered him a food bowl with his name on it, as if this brown eyed stray might be confused as to whether the bowl filled with dog food on the floor might be mine or his.

That night, I left his new bed in the lounge room in front of the TV. I pointed at it. Yours, I said. You can sleep here. But try as I might to get him to stay, he follow me up to my attic bedroom. Before I had even gotten into bed, he had curled up on my side of the bed. He fell asleep instantaneously. At a good forty kilos, Rupert wasn't easy to move. Try as I might to get him off my Egyptian cotton linen, he wouldn't budge. Tired, I gave up and fell asleep.

A wet nose in my ear woke me as the sun was rising the next day. Groggy and confused, I lashed out at the thing to my left. He squealed and cowered and I realised, half-asleep, that I wasn't being attacked. I slowly became aware of this strange situation. A dog I didn't know stealing my half of the bed, waking me up and demanding to be fed. I felt terrible. Apologising profusely, as if he knew what my words meant, I creaked and cracked getting out of bed.

We posted the neighbourhood with "DOG FOUND" posters that day. Every telegraph pole was plastered with Rupert's face as he dutifully sat while I rolled reels of tape around and around. His eyes looked at me as if I'd already given up on him. Don't you like me, they asked. Of course I like you, mine responded. But someone who loves you has lost you. He looked away, as if there was no-one else who could possibly love him. As if he was unlovable.

We learnt each other's quirks. Rupert liked early morning walks, regardless of the weather. He liked stretching his legs. He liked sniffing trees with Maggie, one of the dogs who lived down the street. He only ran after birds if Bernie, an energetic staffie we met at the park, was also chasing them. But mostly Rupert didn't like other dogs. He liked walking. He liked purposeful strides along the sidewalk but never on the road. He liked staying close to me, as if danger might befall him if he wandered too far away. He learnt to put up with my weird work hours and Friday vacuuming sessions. He learnt that Tuesday book club was too overwhelming and stayed upstairs by himself. We learnt how to work together so well that I had forgotten that he had insisted on making himself a part of my life.

When Wayne, on of the clerks at work, came to the house for dinner, I knew Rupert didn't like him. What had been a hopeful date for both of us turned into a disaster. Frightened for his life, Wayne had scuttled away. I was left with a three-course home-made meal and a triumphant dog. But when George, the nice barista at my favourite cafe, came to borrow a novel, Rupert greeted him enthusiastically. I made George a cup of tea. While he sat in the dining room my grandfather had built and my father had re-painted when I moved in, Rupert rested his chin on George's knee. We ended up chatting for hours, Rupert demanding to be petted the whole time.

In the weeks that followed, George came around a few times. First, to borrow a new novel as he had loved the first so much. Then, because of Rupert. Finally, his reasons for visiting were so thinly veiled that I couldn't help but wonder if the kindly barista was trying to weasel his way into my own life, much like the dog who had parked himself in my front yard that whole year before.

Time meandered on. I kept working. George moved in. And moved out again. Rupert continued to abhor book club and steal my side of the bed, which had long since become his side of the bed.

And then one day, I woke up when it was full daylight. I stared at the clock, which told me clearly it was 8am. No wet nose had woken me. I reached my hand out, feeling for a warm, furry body beside me. The bed was cold. There was no Rupert.

Down stairs, calling his name, I could see no trace of him. His night-time kibbles remained untouched in his bowl, the one with ceramic coloured letters spelling out his name. I went back upstairs, wondering if I was still asleep. I found his lead hanging in its usual spot in the laundry. I saw traces of his fur on the rug and his paw prints on the porch from that time we had both gotten muddy on a winter walk. But there was no Rupert.

The day grew long and none of my neighbours had seen him. He's just gone. If it hadn't have been for the fur he'd left behind and the bowl of water with its sloshed puddle and his grubby impression on my expensive linen, I could almost believe that I'd made him up.

He never did come home. His smell slowly left the house. My clothes were washed enough that the fur ceased being the defining feature of any black garments. I wondered often where he'd gone. Did he get sick? Or did he just find a new home? Was he happy? Did he demand morning walks from his new family?

I tell people I had a dog once. But really, a dog had me.


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