by Matt McGee
Father Roger Demetrius had been sound asleep when the howling began. His eyes fluttered open. The clock radio beside his bed said 3:24am.
Of course, it did. These things always happened in the middle of the night, and on this, his day off.
Didn’t they always?
“A priest never sleeps,” his monsignor had once said. “There are no real days off, regardless of our best-laid plans.”
He closed his eyes, shutting out the glow of Christmas lights rimming the window frame that he’d left on. Falling asleep to the muted ambers, greens and reds was a once a year privilege. He settled his head against the pillow. The howling started again.
There’s a point where sleep is disturbed to the point that it becomes impossible to rest right away again, if at all. Father Demetrius decided not to fight it. He sat up. He listened. Wasn’t a car alarm. Or a neighbor’s dog that had been absent-mindedly left outdoors.
It was coming from the church.
He went to the window. The howl was long and low. Sounded like just one dog. It didn’t sound like it was in pain. Or wild. It just sounded lonely.
His eyes searched the dark parking lot of St. Christopher’s. Nothing. No movement in the bushes. The clean walkways along Hale Street were empty.
Then he saw it.
Father Roger pulled on his ‘grubby clothes,’ jeans and a polo shirt. He slid a coat over his shoulders and quietly descended the stairs. Whatever lay ahead, he thought it would be better handled with a little help. He was relieved to see Father Todd at the base of the stairwell.
Todd was the new kid in town. His pale baby face and shaggy strawberry blonde hair only intensified his youthful look.
“You hear that?”
Father Roger pulled his coat crisply. “Woke you too, huh?”
“Actually, I was awake. Scrolling Facebook. Good way to reach a lot of people to send Christmas wishes who might not get my cards in time. I was hoping it would put me back asleep.”
Father Roger stepped to the rectory door and twisted the lock. “Hard to fall asleep with a screen glowing in your eyes.”
“It kind of numbs me. Don’t know if it’s something about seeing the light while surrounded by darkness.”
“Sounds like you’ve hit upon a sermon.”
The howl echoed again across the church grounds.
“Seems to be coming from over there,” the younger priest pointed.
Father Roger already knew which way to go, having seen the dog from his second-floor window. He strode toward the front doors of St. Christopher’s.
And there, in the glow of the manger beside their parishes entrance, they found him. A beautiful, floppy-eared basset hound. The dog sat beside the front door of the church. No sign of humans. His leash had been tethered to the door’s ornate handle.
Father Todd crouched beside the dog. “Well, hi buddy! Oh wow, aren’t you beautiful! What’s he doing here?”
The dog strained at his leash to reach the young priest. His tail wagged energetically. Father Roger leaned down to retrieve a folded piece of paper beside the animal.
“Maybe this note will give us a clue.”
“What’s it say?”
“It says: ‘Dear Church’.”
“‘Dear Church?’ It actually says that?” Father Todd untethered the hound; the dog immediately began licking the young priest’s face.
“Dear Church,” Father Roger read aloud. “He was mine dog. Cannot keep. I can not afford food for mine without he too.”
“English as a second language?” Todd said. The dog leaned against him.
“Maybe.” Father Roger continued. “‘I can no afford food for mine without he too. He is a good boy. Life is sad. Do not want to make sadder dog…”
“Poor guy,” Todd said, stroking the crown of the dog’s head.
“Both of them.” Father Roger fell into a moment of thought. “Who in our congregation speaks English as a second language?”
“I’m new. Sound like anyone to you?”
Father Roger thought a moment. Then something struck him.
“Get your coat,” he said.
“Think of someone?”
The trio walked toward Father Roger’s shiny maroon Ford Fusion. Father Todd loaded the hound into the backseat, then hopped in the front passenger side.
“Where we going?”
The dog stood on the center armrest and bumped its nose into Father Todd’s elbow. The priest resumed his duty of stroking the dog’s head.
“Genesee Street. Other side of town. But first, a stop at the CVS.”
“Aren’t they closed?”
“The one on Reagan Street’s open twenty-four hours.”
Father Todd cradled the dog’s face in his hands. “Hear that buddy? We’re going for a ride! Errands! We get to run errands instead of being leashed to a church!”
“At four in the morning,” Father Roger moaned.
“Four in the morning!” Todd cheered. “But you can’t tell time, can you buddy?”
The dog looked around the car for an open window. Seeing the hound nudge his nose against the glass, Todd cracked the rear passenger side window. “That should be enough to fill your snoot with scents.”
Twenty minutes later, the priests exited the twenty-four-hour CVS, pushing a shopping cart stacked with four 35-pound bags of dog food.
“So does that come out of your pocket?”
“We have a special fund,” said Father Roger. “No man should be without the best friend God could bestow.”
They loaded the kibble into the trunk of the car, and ten minutes later the trio rolled affront a particularly shabby house on Genesee Street. A stretch of tired, gray chain link seperated the property from a weather-cracked sidewalk. Inside the yard, a few car parts rusted, a bike lay toppled with no chain. Father Roger pointed: in the corner of the yard, an empty dog house. It looked homemade, warped wood slats repurposed from discarded pallets hammered together with whatever nails were available.
As Father Roger surveyed the property, Todd kept petting the dog. The hound let out a bark and tried to leap from the backseat, out the open door.
“I think he knows his home,” Todd said.
Father Roger said, “wait here. Both of you.”
Father Roger approached a tired, mud-splattered hunting truck lingering in the driveway. He set his palm on the hood: warm. He returned to the Fusion and pressed the remote, popping the trunk. The dog looked as excited as a hound could.
Father Roger made quick work of getting the four bags to the porch. He noted the lack of Christmas lights, ornaments. There wasn’t even a tree in the window. He returned to Father Todd’s passenger side window.
“Follow me,” he said.
The trio approached the porch. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” Father Roger told his protégé. “It’s vital in life to have someone help make the labor easy.”
“Many hands make for easy work.”
“Exactly,” Father Roger said.
In the morning, a man came onto his front porch on Genesee Street. He’d dropped out of Father Roger’s classes at age eight. This, his childhood home, was still owned by his elderly mother. On the porch he found his best friend and a note atop four bags of dog food. He rushed the note to his mother.
“Ma! What does this say?”
The old woman, whose health hadn’t allowed her to go far from her bed for months, took the paper from her middle-aged son. She read aloud:
“Two are always better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.’ Ecclesiastes 4:9.”
The man looked down at his old hunting dog, tail wagging, tongue hanging happily from his mouth.
“Well, I hear the deer hunting is good this year. And old Ferguson is offering a decent price for venison.” The man took his friend’s face in his hands. “Whadda ya say, old boy, you wanna get to work?”
The dog’s eyes followed while the man packed two days’ worth of supplies. He gave his mother instructions on how to mind the house, then started his truck and helped his friend up onto the seat. Maybe while he was out in the woods, he’d find a perfect tree to bring home and surprise his mother.
As the duo lit off for the woods where the best hunting would be, the man thanked his blessings in the form of the truck that would still get him to the best hunting grounds. But, he knew, without his best friend to flush the game from the brush, it would otherwise have been a long, bleak winter.
Matt McGee writes short fiction in the Los Angeles area. In 2020, his stories appeared in Barrelhouse, Sage and Gnashing Teeth. When not typing, he drives around in rented cars and plays goalie in local hockey leagues.