Hot as sand fleas sizzling under a magnifying glass, Stu’s face and other exposed body parts burned from the scorching heat of the sun. His dog Riley sat with her paws stretched in front of her furry body plump as a cuddly stuffed animal on a carnival midway shelf, a pink ribbon tied into her hair that hung like a fashion model’s bangs in her face.
Stu and Riley often enjoyed lazy days bivouacked at the water’s edge. Long retired from their jobs (he as a jewelry store retail clerk, she a therapy dog for lonely old folks at the senior center) they sat and stared at the ocean, waiting to maybe see a whale in the distance as they let time sooth their aging bones.
Stu talked to his dog the way you talk to your best friend.
We’re in the fourth quarter, Riley, he said.
Riley’s tail thumped a line in the sand.
Time’s running out, Stu said.
Together they waited.
At about 9:30 a.m. the sun grew more powerful in the sky, a molten reminder of the moment rising hotter and hotter from the horizon. Stu reached into the cooler and pulled out two cold macaroons, homemade treats for him and Riley. The burnt coconut scent carried on the breeze all the way down to the water line.
Rook snapped his head their way and charged, his strong Doberman jaws already set as he ran with that same look in his eyes as when he spotted the bloody flank steak Hank fed him a few times a week. That dog ate better than his owner, partial to raw pork chops rather than beef, but willing to swallow anything Hank put in front of him.
Come to think of it, along with the macaroons, maybe Rook caught a whiff of Riley’s doggie perfume Stu dabbed behind her ear each morning before they left the apartment.
Rook, you sonofabitch, come back here, Hank said.
But the Doberman was off and running, driving forward with his head down like an enraged bull ready to gore a matador to death.
Stu gasped. Riley looked up. Rook closed the distance. Riley didn’t flinch. Rook stopped.
Riley nudged the macaroon in the sand with her petite nose, moving the cookie toward Rook whose own nose now sniffed the sweet biscuit buried in the sand. When the big dog gobbled his gift he looked into Riley’s dark chocolate eyes.
Hank hovered nearby, out of breath from the run through the sand.
You trying to poison my dog? No, no, don’t tell me. You want to breed my pedigree with that scrawny fairy princess of yours. That’s it. I see what you’re up to, you old pervert, you.
I beg your pardon, Stu said.
You heard me, bikini boy.
Stu didn’t know what to do. Nobody ever mocked his Speedo swimsuit before. Nobody even noticed. Hank snarled, spitting droplets of wet white anger like he was frothing at the mouth.
How about I dropkick that fluff ball so-called dog of yours from here to Ocean City?
You could barely hear Rook growl low and deep, bringing the slow, steady rumble of affection up from his belly, a strong yet subtle warning to the world to leave this delicate dune doggie of his dreams alone. Riley cowered crawling under torn yellow webbing on the worn seat of the rusted lawn chair Stu carried from home. Rook widened his stance, balanced strong on all fours, ready for anything as his heart pounded in his broad chest.
Hank lifted his knee to snap a karate kick like he saw the mixed martial arts maniacs deliver on the TV he watched in bed every night, cocking his leg for a front punt that would easily rupture Riley’s pint-sized kidneys. As he prepared to unleash his leg, he hit the sand hard, slamming onto his back not knowing what hit him.
Rook was on his master, digging his teeth into throat gristle like he was polishing off a full-course prime rib meal, shaking Hank back and forth around like a stinking sewer rat.
Stu picked up Riley and closed his eyes.
Don’t watch, honey, he said.
But Riley watched.
Did she ever watch her hero protect her honor from the big bad beach bully who acted like he was tougher than man or beast. When Rook finished with Hank, he looked to Riley who gently nudged another macaroon his way, a reward he hungrily accepted and gulped in one bite.
Good doggie, Stu said.
Riley wagged her tail.
Stu reached down and patted Rook’s head.
You want to come home with us, boy?
Rook wagged his tail.
Poor Hank was right about one thing: The puppies would be ugly, but when love is in the air, who cares?