The Scheme Below by Elizabeth Heald

There was a sky above him and Henry felt grateful. It was a lovely winter blue surrounding the great gauzy ball of the sun, which was gold and bright to look at. Henry squinted, blinded by the dazzling light until he found relief beneath the tunnel of tree branches denoting the mouth of the rail… no, trail. The dogs plodded along beside him, tails swishing and tongues lolling out over sharp canine teeth. Their progress was slow and deliberate and Henry appreciated their thoughtfulness. It was all very perfect until one of the dogs turned and lunged at the sound of something behind them, and the rest of the dogs followed suit.

Startled by the sudden eruption of barking, Henry turned to see what the fuss was about, and he let out a shriek and turned to run. The trail was slick and the branches of saplings extended like fingers, snagging his jacket and the dogs’ winter coats. Henry thought he could feel the thing that was behind them, could sense its stamp… no, damp breath on his back.

As he ran, Henry began to notice tiny white flowers blooming through the broken bark of ancient wide pines, an enchanting floral surprise. Finches with orange dappled feathers darted out from the undergrowth and fluttered delightfully up into branches above. Now that was something, he thought.

Henry stopped running, jerking all five dogs back by their leashes. Flummoxed, they began to circle around him in nervous confusion, leads tangling and crossing beneath their legs.

Now that was the darndest thing, Henry thought. Why had he even been running? He reached out to touch the white flowers. He knew very well that he wasn’t supposed to run on account of his knees and, more importantly, his art…no, heart.

One of the dogs took the pause as an opportunity to circle and squat. Henry sighed and adjusted his fanny pack around to his belly. He reached in and withdrew a baggy, then bent over with much effort to pick up after Turtle, the Norwegian elkhound, whose turds were enormous and often required a second or third bag. And his name might have been Myrtle not Turtle, which would make him a girl. Henry couldn’t remember and figured it was neither here nor there. As the elkhound finished up its business, the four other dogs became restless and pulled on their leashes, sending Henry off-balance so he nearly toppled down the narrow switchback into the freezing scheme…no, stream below.

There was something Henry was forgetting. Something that just seconds before had been of the upmost importance- something unavoidably vital, imperative, and perhaps even dire.

Steadying himself, Henry spun the plastic sack full of feces and tied it at the top. He assumed an awkward, plodding progress down the trail, cursing under his breath as the dogs strained against their tethers with uncharacteristic resolve.

Henry felt needled. There was something he needed to be doing. He looked around at the lovely ferns, the ivy, the trees dressed up all mossy and forced himself to calm.  Whatever it was, it would come to him when his consciousness was Betty…no, ready. Henry laughed. Who the hell was Betty?

Each day was a gift. Henry was beginning to realize that. Each day was a wonderful surprise. This new insight was buttressed by the fact that his days were different than he remembered them being, narrower somehow – the hours marching hazily in consecutive motion towards something uncharted. Yes, he decided, his days were changing, evolving into a cluster of unexpected ‘aha’ moments.

Just that morning while eating pancakes, he found he wasn’t certain who the woman sitting across the kitchen table was.  And then it came to him, clear as a bell. Aha! It was Marjorie. The woman before him was Marjorie, his dear, lovely wife.

Henry stumbled over a tree root and cursed at the dogs. They were pulling too hard for him today. Or perhaps he was getting too old to continue walking all the neighborhood dogs. How had it come about that he was in charge of them? It must have had something to do with Marjorie. Surely she had said something to the neighbors recommending him, thinking he might be bored in his requirement. No… retirement. Nevertheless, Henry did love walking the dogs, loved his precious time with them. Their noses constantly alighting up in the air or pressing frantically down to the earth, always in search of something, always aware. Whose dogs were they? At this moment he couldn’t remember. The only thing on his mind was that he might be too old to be responsible for them, his precious canine friends.

“Too old?” Henry jeered, speaking only to the wind and the trees and of course the dogs around him. “Ha! I don’t even know how old I am.” That thought stopped him. It was true he couldn’t remember little things like that lately.  But he never let on. If he were to let on then Marjorie would call Doctor Mares, and Doctor Mares would put the kibosh on walking the dogs through the meandering forest paths each day.

Henry pulled up on the leashes, brought the dogs to a full stop upon hearing a noise behind him. He turned and studied the trail. Now that was strange. There was something he was trying to remember. What was the thing he had seen a ways back? Something that wasn’t right or good or okay. But, of course, Henry couldn’t think with all the noise and dismay of the dogs.

“See here now,” Henry spoke sharply. “There is no reason for you to be impatient. We take this walk every day.”

The hair on the dogs’ backs bristled and the two Boston Terriers crouched low to the ground, shaking. For some reason that just didn’t seem right. There was something Henry was missing, a big blank space; a hole in his memory; a jog in his drain… no, brain. Well hell, he just couldn’t remember if it was a brain or a drain. And Henry suddenly couldn’t remember if he did actually walk these dogs every day. Or perhaps it was just every other day. Maybe he only did it on the weekends. He would have to figure that one out without asking Marjorie directly. A question such as that would definitely be concerning and he didn’t want his mother worrying and taking privileges away.  No, now wait a minute. Slow down there, buddy. Not mother, wife. Not privileges, rights.

Henry took a deep breath and continued walking. He focused on the stream – the lovely, cold water running along the trail. It was beautiful, a true study in perfection. If ever art had been expressed it was in this perfect, frigid stream as it meandered beside the forest path. Its water was very nearly frozen in forked rivulets, long and narrow, like the fingers of an aristocrat. It reminded Henry how very cold he was, how hungry and thirsty and tired. He thought of how he might like to sip of that freezing water, take a long and lofty drink. Could taking a drink be lofty? Henry couldn’t remember. Perhaps lofty had been the name of a cat he’d had years back. Truth be told, he wasn’t really certain of a whole heck of a lot at the moment.

What was that sound that kept happening behind him? Something the dogs didn’t like, not one little bit. Whatever was behind him it was certainly elusive. It kept disappearing, so each time Henry turned he was met with an empty trail and a stirring of leaves. Henry wondered if perhaps that was the reason he had been running. Had he been making an effort to get away? He thought that it might be wise to run again, just to see how it felt. Perhaps running, though bad for his heart and knees and also his artificial hip, would jog some fundamental part of his memory so he could recall the thing that evaded him. Also, he needed to get home to Marjorie. Really he needed his mother now.

Now wait a second there, Captain. Don’t you mean to say wife?  Marjorie was his wife. Or maybe she was his sister. Didn’t he have a sister? Growing up? It rang a bell somewhere off in the distant maybes of his rusty noggin. Rusty noggin. That was a good one. He’d have to tell that one to Marjorie. She’d get a kick out of that… whoever she was.

Henry stopped, stepped off the trail and leaned over the frozen stream despite the desperate forward urgings of the dogs. He wondered if there might be some way to corner his reflection, see who he really was. And perhaps seeing himself would give him some clue as to who he lived with. Give him the wherewithal to greet with gusto and certainty whomever awaited him at the conclusion of his walk.

But, okay, now the dogs were really barking. Except for the terriers. They just whimpered and shook. Poor little guys – so scared, so timid.

“Hey there, now just take it easy,” Henry bent to pet their shorthaired heads. “I’ll protect you. And besides, it’s most likely just the wind. There’s really nothing there.”

The dogs raised their eyebrows, looked at him pleadingly. Okay. Henry had to get moving. But he was also very tired and cold. Looking down at his hands grasping the handles of five different leashes, Henry realized they were bleeding, blistered and chafed. Now that was odd. That was a thirst… no, first. It was twenty some degrees outside, why hadn’t he thought to bring his gloves or his jacket?  Surely Marjorie would have stopped him from leaving the house without his cat…no, not cat. What was that thing you put on your head? Had Marjorie even seen him leave the house? Henry couldn’t remember. Couldn’t pull her face out of the ruckus in his brain. The ruckus of his brain…now there was a good description. That was really spot-on. Even right now, there was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something imperative.

Henry’s stride had reduced to a shuffle. His feet could barely move. The light was fading from the day. And ahhh, Glory Be! Look at that sunset through the western tree branches. It was really beautiful. Henry turned towards it, stopped completely and watched. How long had he been out walking? It seemed that he had left the house in the early morning and here he was still out on the trail as the earth tilted sunlight from the sky. He was certainly cold and his hand was sure hurting. Henry wondered if it might not be a good idea to just let go of the dogs. Set them free. Let them run from whatever it was that disturbed them. Eventually, in their own good time, Henry was certain they would all find their way home. Henry thought that sounded just fine. It was almost certainly the right decision. Let the animals go. No longer hindered by an old man’s slow progress through the darkening woods.

“Run!” Henry said to the dogs as he dropped their many leashes. What a relief it was to be free of their straining bodies. It felt like an eternity that he had been fighting their lead. “Go home!” He cried, heart filling with a heroic bubble of gold. “Go back to whence it was that you came!” Did that even make sense? Was that something people said to dogs or even other people? And why weren’t the dogs moving? Why did they stand before him, ears back and behinds raised? Why were they all (even the ridiculously cute and small wiener dog) acting churlish? Why did they snarl?

Henry squinted his eyes and tried to see through the poor light of dusk. He admonished himself for having forgotten his glasses in addition to forgetting everything else. What he saw, or at least thought he saw, was a statue. A big statue of maybe a horse or something else, like a lion or even a yeti? Ha! That was hitting one out of the ballpark. A yeti or a Sasquatch, Henry hadn’t thought of such creatures in tears…no, beers…no. Not since he was a boy. Henry felt scared. Maybe he was even terrified.  It, whatever it was, made steady progress towards him and the posturing dogs. Henry couldn’t remember if statues moved, but thought that perhaps they didn’t.

Henry stumbled back as the thing approached. He wondered at the dog’s intentions with their chests to the ground all ready to spring. Surely they didn’t mean it. Surely they knew they were no match for the shadow that was looming ever more beastlike and large. It hovered over them, eclipsing the light of a freshly hung dune…no, what’s the word? Moon.

Elizabeth Heald lives in Portland, Oregon and is a founding member of Full Frontal Writing Collective. She was a recent finalist in the NYC Midnight International Flash Fiction Challenge and has work forthcoming in Jitterbug Press. She exists and writes in a household frantic with three wild children, two poorly behaved dogs and one understanding husband. Her best work is done here.

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