The Marvelous Misfits of Westminster

The Marvelous Misfits of Westminster Beats Figuren Outline Rohfassung Erstfassung Endfassung

Diese Erzählung ist meine Endfassung für das Abschlussprojekt der Coursera-Spezialisierung “Kreatives Schreiben” und wurde im November 2020 zur Bewertung eingereicht.

Today

We are at a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. There’s junk everywhere. What isn’t covered in garbage is overgrown with weeds. The park is desolate. Most of the trailers are boarded up.

“You sure she lives here?” I know she does. Read so with my own fingers. Yet, my heart refuses to believe. I need reassurance.

The cough next to me is Harvey laughing. Instead of calming my nerves, he points with two thumps at his skin.

I roll my eyes. “I know, I know… This skin ain’t joking.”

I sigh and get out of the car. Why on earth did she run away to hell?

I open the trunk of my Chevrolet Celebrity and get the box. It is large and heavier than anticipated. I press it against my chest and walk carefully over to her trailer. At the doorstep I bent my knees in a slow, fluent motion. The box clunks to the ground, despite my effort. I breathe in sharply and wait. Nothing. I peek through the air holes in the lid but it’s too dark inside to see anything. So I put my ear on the box to double-check. With relief, I hear steady breaths and a low snore. I retie the bow, for good measure, securing it with a double knot. Time to go. Before I leave, I stroke the lid and whisper: “You catch it, girl, and when you do, kill it. Kill it before it kills her!”

Four Months Earlier

Thirty minutes after Cynthia phoned me, I left the icy winds of 8th Avenue and entered The Garden through entrance C. The air inside the arena was heavy with the scent of wet dog, canned food and ammonia. Excited barks and hectic voices filled the corridors. I was back where I belonged. I straightened my bow tie, smoothed my hair and walked with my head held high through the crowd, looking for Cynthia.

Five years had passed since my last dog show. I never expected to be a judge at Westminster again. Yet, I had made sure to always look the part. Every year. Just in case. Come Westminster Weekend, I dressed up in my tawny brown three-piece suit, put on my best leather shoes, freshly shined, of course, and—to introduce a splash of color and a whiff of elegance—I wore my favorite bow tie. It was fern green and according to the person who gave it to me, it suited the color of my eyes.

Cynthia had begged me to step in. Yet, I felt like an intruder. Why? I’d done the right thing back then. A crowned head had not caused my principles to waver. Although the board had canned me for it and this injustice still stung, my defiance had been an act of heroism. A couple of more seasoned participants recognized me. With a nod, they stepped aside, so I could pass. I nodded back, a wave of warmth rushing through my chest. The board might not have appreciated what I had done for Westminster. But who gave a fiddlestick about their opinion? I certainly didn’t.

“Clement!” Somebody called. I turned and saw Cynthia rushing towards me, clipboard in hand. Her grey ensemble was loosely cut, her flat shoes of the obviously comfortable kind, her hair up in a messy bun. She looked just as I remembered: not at all like a lady. She didn’t talk posh either. Not with me. “Only sound travels faster,” she said with a surprised look at her wrist watch, then greeted me with a kiss on the cheek.

“Cynthia!“ I said kissing her back. “To what do I owe the unexpected honor?” I had intended the question as a quip. But once my words hit the air the bitter tone that had mixed in was undeniable.

Instantly, the atmosphere changed. Awkwardness spread between us like spilled ink.

“I know our last encounter wasn’t exactly pleasant.“ Cynthia stared at her clipboard, fidgeting with the ballpoint attached to it with a rubber band. For a moment, there was a painful silence. “You were totally right. There are rules to be followed. Nobody should be allowed to enter finals directly. I did not approve of the board’s decision. They should not have fired you in the first place. Yet, I thought if a friend told you what they decided, it would soften the blow.“ She looked up, in her eyes, a plea for forgiveness.

I did know she had merely been the messenger I’d shot at in my anger. I even could imagine she had stood up to the board on my behalf. Yet it felt good to hear her say it. I had been canned for doing my job too well. That doesn’t happen every day, and it still gnawed at my pride. All those years it was my sense of perfection that had kept up the standards of Westminster. After all, the show was an institution. It meant something to win it; at least to me. I took a deep breath to push down my bitterness. None of us could change what had happened. Cynthia and I had been friends once. She still wanted to be mine.

“How can I be of service, milady?” I said, hinting at a bow.

Cynthia pursed her lips but there was a twinkle in her eye. I could tell she took my mild mockery of her position for what it was: a peace offering.

“I should never have told you this.”

“You didn’t,” I said smiling. I’d found out what kind of family she came from years ago. Cynthia was not amused by our chance meeting at Balmoral Castle. I was discussing one of the Queen’s Corgis with a footman who referred to himself as Doggie One, a lordly schmuck. Her Majesty wanted to show the dog at Westminster. Without competing in the preliminaries, of course. The Corgi’s name was Willow, a real cutie but no show winner—although I kept this expert opinion of mine to myself. Her Majesty’s wish certainly wasn’t my command. No way I’d let her dog skip to the finals. I tried to break the news to His Royal Schmuckness with the utmost civility, when up the garden stairs walked a familiar figure dressed in very unfamiliar attire. Cynthia nearly tripped on the hem of her fancy dress when she recognized me. Back in New York, I never told anybody about our chance encounter in Scotland. Clearly, Cynthia had moved to America to be someone else. She appreciated my discretion. We became friends after.

I expected more banter, but Cynthia said no more. Instead, she bit her lips, eying the room behind my back as if looking for someone.

“What’s up?” I touched her arm to get her attention.

“Have you been following the show?” she asked, pinching the skin at her throat.

I shook my head. Since I had been forced to leave, I avoided watching any live broadcasts. It hurt too much. Usually, I read the New York Times coverage a few weeks after. Cynthia nodded. “I figured.” She took my arm and pulled me to a quiet place near the wall.

“There has been an unusual decision during the best-of-group event, yesterday. An unacceptable one, to be honest. I’m not talking about slight imperfections here. The members of the board are upset.” A mischievous glint flashed in her eye. “Truth is, they lost their shit, pardon my French.”

“So I’m the cavalry?”

Cynthia nodded. She was all serious again. “This could be your way back to Westminster. They want you to judge the best-in-show event. The board knows you’d rather drop dead than turn a blind eye to even the slightest imperfection.”

“As would you,” I said.

“Well, to be honest, I was their first choice. But I excused myself for personal reasons.”

I furrowed my brow. “I find it hard to believe that any judge at Westminster would make an unacceptable judgment. Each one of us has years of experience. Who’d do such a thing?”

Cynthia pressed her lips together and stared intently at her clipboard as if trying to find the answer to my question there.

“Spit it out, what haven’t you told me?”

“It was Edith.”

Every muscle in my body tensed as if punched. I hadn’t seen Edith in years. Since she disappeared, she’d gone to lengths to avoid running into me. Even excused herself as a judge from shows I was hired to judge, too. Her memory haunted me like a murdered person’s ghost, but despite that, the mere possibility of a chance meeting didn’t cross my mind anymore. I put my trembling hand into the pocket of my jacket.

“Will you still judge tonight?” Cynthia avoided my gaze. She knew exactly what she’d done. Of course, Cynthia hadn’t told Edith I was coming either. She couldn’t lose a judge in the middle of the event. She had thrown both of us into the deep end.

I breathed steadily through clenched teeth, counting to ten in my mind before I answered.

“Of course. I just need a moment.”

Cynthia nodded and squeezed my arm.

“I’m truly sorry. I owe you one. Big time.”

Without another word I turned and hurried to the washroom. The cold water I splashed on my face was a relief. I studied my face in the mirror. Since Edith left, it had turned into a web of worry and pain. What would she think of me after all those years? Had it been ten already? To occupy my trembling hands, I adjusted my bow. I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders. It couldn’t be helped. Besides, why should I care what she might think of me? My turning into a bitter old man was her doing. She owed me an explanation—and today I would get it. With renewed determination, I left the washroom.

Preparations were in full swing, the show was to start in less than one hour. People were brushing and blow-drying their dogs on both ends at the same time. All grooming tables were crowded. All but one. Curious. Was one owner late? I walked to the abandoned workstation and right into the olfactory wall that surrounded it. I wrinkled my nose. The scent was earthy. Earthy with a hint of bad wolf. I couldn’t shake the feeling of having ventured too deep into the woods. The very next moment, a black beast jumped at me out of nowhere, teeth bared. The claws of its plate-sized paws dug into my chest and its deep growl made me freeze. I didn’t dare move and avoided looking at it in order not to provoke it any further.

“Irving, that’s no way to greet a guest!” A fine voice said, rebuking the dog good-naturedly.

An eerie silence spread from the dog that hushed all other noises. For a split second only the beast and I existed. When the sounds returned in a deafening wave, they almost drowned out the fine voice.

“I see. In this case, good catch. But still, not quite the way to gain a friend.” A wrinkled hand pulled at the dog’s leather band. It was way too delicate to hold back a hound of Irving’s size. Before the dog let go of me, it ran its slobbery tongue across my face.

With the body of the beast out of my view, I saw who was talking: an elderly lady wearing a brown felt hat with a wide brim and a dress in at least a dozen shades of green. She was tiny in relation to her dog.

“That’s better, Irving. A kiss reconciles everyone.” She giggled.

Boiling with rage, I wiped the drool off my cheek with the back of my hand. “Good catch? What’s that supposed to mean.“ The woman opened her mouth to say something but I cut her off. “You do know, Ma’am, that it is against the rules to bring a dog to the event if it does not compete in it?”

Indignantly, I glared at the black monstrosity that was now sitting meekly next to its owner, nestling its calf-like head to her hand. Its eyes, though, never left me for a second. They had the peculiar shade of the ocean. One was tempted to perceive them as a lovely blue, but truly they had no color of their own. They merely reflected something else.

“I don’t understand…“

The old woman lifted her head and gazed at someone standing right behind me. Her eyes were misty, like November fog. Did I just rebuke a blind woman and her companion dog? My ears started to burn.

“I am so sorry, Ma’am! I didn’t know…” I stammered.

The woman laughed good-naturedly.

“You are not the only one. Irving may not look like a typical show dog, but believe me, he is a true Eppinger.” She lovingly plucked the dog’s left ear which hung limply down while the right one stood straight up. The one sticking up was missing a big piece.

I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it again. No string of words expressed my bewilderment at her statement in quite the right way. Among all the confusing things contained in that sentence, I tackled the one that hurt my professional pride, first.

“As a longtime member of the American Kennel Club and seasoned judge at Westminster, I can assure you a breed named Eppinger does not exist,” I said.

“I thought so, too,” the woman smiled. “Then I met Irving.”

I rubbed at my brow, wondering who’d let this crazy person in. “Westminster is a breed event. Surely, you are aware, Ma’am, that a single dog does not make a breed. He cannot compete.”

“Eppingers are quite rare and Irving’s one of a kind, but he is not the only one. There’s another Eppinger in the show today.”

I shook my head. “I mean no disrespect, but to compete in today’s event a dog must have won the prelimi—” She put a blue ribbon in front of my nose like a police officer flashing her badge.

I stared at the imprint.

Best Working Dog.

It dawned on me whom I met: Edith’s infamous decision.

I looked at the mongrel in front of me. Irving was the size of a full-grown Shetland pony. His coat was matted and dirty. Bald spots revealed his crusty skin. His pale tongue dangling limply from his mouth gave the impression of great exhaustion. It was hard to tell how old the dog was, but its prime years were long past. If one saw a dog like this roaming the streets, one would have pitied it enough to throw it a half-eaten hamburger. But I doubted anyone in their right mind would have taken it home with them. Although the ribbon in my hand was proof, I could not wrap my head around the fact that Edith should be responsible for such an outrageous judgment. We used to have very similar ideas of what winners looked like. She must have changed a lot. Or maybe you never knew her at all. said a deep voice inside my head that did not sound like my own.

“I… I am sorry,“ I stammered and handed the blue ribbon back to her, “my mistake.”

She smiled again. “An easy mistake to make. We are the only ones breeding Eppingers and this is our first show.”

I wondered where the name came from. It had a familiar ring. Wasn’t there a town named Epping in New Hampshire, on the crossroads of Route 101 and Route 125.

“The breed’s not named after Epping, the center of the universe, although this would be fitting,” said a panting voice behind me, followed by the husky bark of a long-time smoker. “They are named after Epping, the forest near London.”

“Excuse me?”

I turned and a sharp yelp escaped my mouth. The person in front of me had no lips. Bared teeth stretched out towards me and a thin thread of saliva dripped from the open mouth. I did not know what I was looking at — a man or a woman. The clothing and the depth of the voice rather suggested a man. Where the ears should have been, there was only a shriveled piece of skin resembling dried plums. A tuft of hair grew out of the skin halfway up the neck, as if the hairline had melted, coagulated and solidified in the new place.

“I’m Harvey Hunt.“ The burnt man stuck out his hand. I stared at it. Like every other patch of visible skin, the hand was scorched and scarred.

“If you are contemplating to run, the time would be now,“ the man said. The burning sensation in my ears made me remember my manners.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” I took his hand. The grip of his handshake was firm, almost painful.

“Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Ain’t seeing a scary face like this one every day.” Harvey pointed with two thumbs at his face and winked at me. The strange hoarse sound came out of his throat again. It took me a while to realize it was a laugh.

“I see you’ve already met my wife Haimi, and our little showstopper.” He tousled Irving’s shaggy hair.

I snorted at the word showstopper but immediately camouflaged it as a cough. Harvey looked at me intently.

“How did you know I was wondering about the breed name,” I asked to deflect from my involuntary reaction.

Harvey let it pass and winked at me again. “I have my sources.”

“So are you from London originally?” They did not sound very British to me.

Harvey shook his head. “We are from Maine. But Irving’s a true Brit. His ancestors lived in Epping Forest after they escaped the London Massacre.“ The burnt man became aware of my empty gaze. “You know, the one in 1939 that killed almost 400,000 dogs?“ I shrugged. “Anyway, they were a legendary pack. Did all kinds of great things. Even saved 51 people from drowning the night the Marchioness sank on the River Thames. Great shame all but one got slain shortly after. They shot the dogs by the dozen. Can you believe it?”

I couldn’t. I had never heard of any massacre in London nor of any dogs getting shot by the dozen in Epping Forest. But I did know about the Marchioness disaster. Everyone my age knew. It had been all over the news. The steamer was hired for a birthday party, had 130 people on board. It sank in the late eighties after it got hit twice by a dredger. The dredger’s crew did not make any attempts to rescue survivors. 51 people drowned. No dogs were involved at all. This conversation had turned into a hostage situation. I looked at my watch, planning a polite escape from the grip of these loonies.

“At least one of the pack survived,” Harvey sighed heavily and stroked the dog as if to comfort it.

Now, he had my attention again. Yes, the dog looked like he was ready to drop dead. But I doubted Irving was any older than twelve. “Sir,“ I said with furrowed brows, “the Marchioness sank more than thirty years ago.”

“You tell me, I was on that boat. It was my birthday party.“ For a moment he said no more but stared at his hands. Then he took a deep breath and nodded at the dog. “That one dragged me out of the water. He dragged me out of other things, too. I’m prone to accidents, you see.“ He made a gesture including his whole body. “Maybe that’s why Irving stayed with me and didn’t return to the woods with the others. He knew I was not to be trusted around the elements.” He twisted his lipless mouth into something that probably counted for a smile. I did not know how to react, so I laughed nervously.

Irving pierced me with his water-colored eyes. The dog was gigantic for canine standards. But dragging a grown person out of a river? Against the heavy currents of the Thames? Come on.

“For what do you breed then?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“Extraordinary abilities,” Haimi said.

I couldn’t deny that I was intrigued by the notion. Irving’s blue eyes continued to pierce me, and despite my doubts, I wondered what extraordinary ability the dog might have.

“Read thoughts, among other things,” said Harvey as if it was a side note.

“So he’s the one?” He had turned towards his wife and to the dog when he said it. But I was almost certain the question was directed at the dog alone. “That’s what he says,” said Haimi and the dog blinked twice.

Harvey looked me up and down. His gaze got stuck on my bow tie. “Doesn’t look like the helping kind to me.”

Confused, I glanced at the three misfits who were inspecting me as if I was some kind of mythical creature. Not of the helping kind, of course. My bow became tighter the longer they stared at me. I plucked at it to get some air.

Haimi moved forward and grabbed my hand.

“Do you believe in transmigration?” she asked.

“Of the soul?” I asked.

Haimi did not answer but stepped very close towards me. I felt the warmth of her breath.

“May I?” she asked. Not waiting for my consent, she slipped my hand under Harveys shirt and pressed it onto his disfigured skin. I flinched, but Haimi held me back with surprising strength.

“Close your eyes, so you can see!“ she urged.

I’d rather kept my eyes open, but I was afraid that if I didn’t obey, she would never let go of my hand. Blindly, I groped my way over the scar tissue. Harvey’s skin felt unexpectedly tender and soft, as if it might break under my touch. The scarred lines and elevations formed a fascinating pattern. Almost with a sense of their own, my fingertips explored the structure, trying to decipher it like a foreign language. A higher power seemed to guide my hand as it glided over the burnt man’s naked skin.

“The scars,” Haimi whispered into my ear, “they are not random. They form a pattern. Feel here.” She guided my hand to a scarred area near his left nipple, her voice now a hypnotic mumble. “That’s about you. Well, not all of it. Those bumps are about a cricket. But here. That’s about you. Shall I tell you what it says?”

Perhaps Mrs. Hunt interpreted my silence as approval. More likely she didn’t even care if I wanted to know.

“I need you, Hal.”

I tore back my hand and glared at both of them.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

Harvey shook his head slowly, pushing his shirt back into his trousers.

“This skin ain’t joking,” he said, wiping a drizzle of saliva from his mouth. “You are Hal.” He did not look at me, but at the dog when he said it, waiting for its reaction. Irving blinked twice.

Before I could respond, a voice behind me caught my attention. With a stumbling heart, I turned and saw Edith, amid a group of other judges.

“He’s something else,” she said to a colleague walking next to her. But right when she said those words, our eyes met and I felt as if they were meant for me. She was wearing her brown hair short now, brushed back behind her ears, which gave her a boyish look. Her skin had lost the healthy glow I knew. It was pale, almost translucent. Dark circles had gathered around her eyes, making them unnaturally large. She couldn’t have looked more like a ghost if she’d tried. What had happened to her between then and now? When she realized whom she was facing, her radiant smile faded. She stared at me like a wild thing caught in a speeding car’s headlights.

My last memory of Edith was an absence rather than a presence. The sound of her shower. The scent of her body wash. It smelled like a meadow in spring. Behind the bathroom door, she hummed. The Moldau. Edith’s impression of the river passing the jubilant Hunters—a part usually played by the French horns—was charmingly out of tune. I smiled. Edith had said to dress up. That meant she wanted to tell me something important. Could it have finally happened? I rummaged the fridge for a suitable drink. Should I open a bottle of wine? I shook my head. That would hardly be appropriate.

It took me a while to notice the sudden silence. The water still ran. But her humming had stopped. The flat had turned quiet as a forest without any birds.

“Cricket?” I knocked softly on the bathroom door. “Everything alright?”

No answer. I entered and found the steamy room empty. Turning the water off, I looked for Edith in the adjacent bedroom. I did not find her there, nor in the rest of the house. She had disappeared. All I found was the empty package of a pregnancy test.

A week later, she served me with divorce papers. The whole thing went through her lawyer. I never saw or spoke to her again. Losing her was abrupt and permanent. As if she had died.

It only took Edith a moment to regain her composure. She turned her attention straight back to her colleagues, like I was a stranger.

“Isn’t it a remarkable breed?” She knelt beside Irving and patted the dog’s unshapely head. Some judges inspected the tips of their shoes, others bit their lips. Edith did not notice. The dog entranced her. I recognized that gleam in her eyes. She had worn it when she said “I love you” the first time. My insides turned cold. I’d rather dig up my mother’s dead body than name this abomination best of show.

The group of judges moved on. When Edith also wanted to get up to follow them, Irving snatched her forearm and held her tight. Tight enough to hurt, but not to break the skin. Clearly the dog did not intend to let go of her. Edith froze. She knew how to act around dogs. Nonetheless, her hand trembled.

The other judges had stopped mid-step and looked at the scene horrified. I moved forward, intending to grab the dog and tear it away from her. But Harvey held me back.

“No, let him have a good bite, first. Don’t you see how close it is? It needs a good scare!” he urged.

“What are you talking about? Let go of me. This is madness.” I shook his hand away. But something in Edith’s eyes held me back. She was not afraid of the dog. She did not look at her arm but fixated on what the dog had caught. Her eyes were wide with wonder. I could not see anything, but she obviously did. As did the dog. And Harvey.

With cautious steps, the burnt man approached Edith and Irving. He bent down to the dog. A minute passed in tense silence. The dog’s and owner’s eyes locked. Both drooled.

When Harvey’s voice broke the silence, it came from afar and sounded unlike his own. “The shadow comes with the child. It has killed before. It will kill again. Do you understand?”

Edith went pale. She held my gaze, unable to blink, her chin quivering. Almost imperceptibly, she nodded. Irving let go of her immediately, licked Harvey’s hand as if to thank him and sat down in front of Edith, staring at her. His eyes appeared almost black now as if reflecting a darkness. Edith rubbed Irving’s drool off her arm.

“I’m fine”, she said and held her arm up so everyone could see she was not hurt. “Just got a fright. Please go on without me.” Her voice trembled. I saw that she struggled to hold back the tears.

The crowd stood rooted, shocked, not sure what to do.

“This dog should wear a muzzle. Better yet, disqualified,” said one.

Another mumbled “What has Westminster become? A gypsy circus?”

“Not if I have a say in it,“ I said and shooed the bystanders away as if securing a crime scene. Edith needed some space, and I needed room to think. The shadow comes with the child. Harvey’s words had meant something to her, as had the name Hal to me. A hot wave rushed through my veins and quickened my pulse. Was there a child? I remembered the empty box of the pregnancy test the night she disappeared. I’d assumed it had been negative. I looked at Edith intently, but she avoided my gaze.

“You’d better keep your revelations to yourself, Mr. Hunt.” Her voice sounded unaffected, but her body betrayed she was shaken. She had her arms crossed in a peculiar self hug to hide the trembling. Then her eyes fell on Irving.

“Perhaps I was wrong after all. There is nothing special about this… mutt.”

She turned around and practically ran away.

I was left alone with the Hunts and their dog.

“She needed to know. The shadow already left its marks on her soul. Her death is inevitable if she does not get help. Your help.” With her bony finger Haimi circled the spot on Harvey’s burnt skin she had shown me before.

“It’s written in fire. She needs you, Hal. We need you. Irving must win.”

I felt my body tensing up, my muscles started to quiver. It took some self-control not to shout at the elderly couple in front of me. “No sane person would ever name this dog winner of anything.”

Haimi’s cheeks turned red as if slapped. “Sanity, dear friend, needs to be handled with extreme caution. Do not let it prevent you from stepping through a wall just because you won’t believe it might be a door.”

The old lady’s chest moved violently up and down. Harvey touched her arm. His wife looked at him, then shrugged in silent agreement and said no more.

“Irving is dying,“ Harvey said. “He needs to procreate. With the other Eppinger on the show.“ He turned his head. I followed his gaze to Lady Winthrop’s workstation. She was brushing her Salvatora.

I stroke my brow and took a deep breath. They were mad. Complete nutcases. “You. Cannot. Be. Serious.” I said through gritted teeth ignoring the obvious: the fact Lady Winthrop’s dog was a fox terrier. “What on earth makes you think she would ever let this mutt jump her price-winning Salvatora?”

Harvey shrugged. “She was not easily convinced. But she agreed to it. On one condition.“

“Irving must win,” I completed, my voice sounded exhausted as I shook my head.

He pulled back the corners of his lipless mouth to a dreadful smile. It made his teeth stick out even more and caused a gush of spit to drool onto his shirt. Appalled I averted my gaze. If he had noticed my disgust, he did not let it show. Instead, he continued with enthusiasm. Maybe he believed I finally understood what it was all about. “Now you see where you come in. I know you would. It wasn’t easy to get you here either, we had to…”

He rambled on about an obscure scheme of Irving’s that involved Edith. And Cynthia. And supposedly forced all the members of board to change their mind about my being a judge at Westminster. I only listened to his baloney with half an ear while my mind rattled in an effort to come to terms with the mere notion that Lady Winthrop would ever agree to such a condition. In mind-boggling disbelief, I watched her brush Salvatora with a passion. Even from a distance I noticed how shiny and healthy the dog’s fur looked. The bitch was a rare kind of perfection: coat markings as if drawn by an artist’s hand, eyes the color of golden syrup, impeccable posture, and a winning temperament. Salvatora exceeded all breed standards and was in every aspect an undisputed ten. Already, the smooth-haired fox terrier was a living legend. Salvatora had won Westminster three times in a row, and was expected to win a fourth time today. If she did, that would be a feat no other dog had accomplished before her. In the 147 years Westminster existed.

„Now, just when you had me all convinced that looks don’t matter in a true Eppinger,“ I said matter-of-factly but the blind woman was not that easily fooled.

“It’s not Salvatora’s beauty that makes her special.“ Haimi’s voice sounded rebuking. “She smells imminent peril. Salvatora comes from a long line of survivors. Her ancestor was one of the three dogs that survived the sinking of the Titanic.”

Haimi took my hand and pressed it. She looked at me forcefully with her misty eyes.

“The connection between Salvatora and Irving is vital. Their offspring will save many lives. Edith will be one of it. You are destined to bring about their connection.”

I shook her hand off. Finally, I had enough of the Hunt’s antics.

“Or what?“ I spat. „Edith dies? You’re out of your minds.“ I glared at both of them. „If your plan is to scare me into helping you, think again.“

I stormed away, looking for Edith. I had a feeling where she might be.

Edith sat on a staircase leading to the garbage cans. She had her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. When the door fell shut behind me, she looked up.

“Hal…”

She sniffled. The redness of her eyes betrayed she had been crying. A warmth spread through my body when she used the pet name she’d given me in happier times. It hit me like a bullet of heat. Nobody else called me by that name. It had been our little inside joke. She knew I was a big fan of the science fiction author Clement Hal. So she gave me a signed copy of his short story Proof for our first Christmas. After I’d opened my present, I proposed to her on impulse. Since then, she’d called me Hal and I was glad she still did. All anger, all resentment fell away from me.

I sat down beside her. We were closer to each other than we had been in a long time. The warmth of her body made me quiver. I handed her the handkerchief, which I carried in my breast pocket—always freshly washed and neatly folded—for occasions just like this. It had been a while since my chivalry was needed.

She accepted it, dabbed her eyes, then blew her nose vigorously. This made me smile. The girl I had fallen for was still in there. Somewhere.

“Nice bow tie,” she said. “Suits your eyes.”

“So I’m told.”

She smiled.

I stroked back a strand of her short hair that had fallen into her face. All of a sudden, the old intimacy between us was back.

“Tell me, Cricket.” I said.

Edith began to sob uncontrollably. It took a long time before she could speak.

“I’m sorry, Hal. I was scared.” Her gaze was pinned to her lap. She wrung the handkerchief in her hands. They still trembled. I took them into mine to hold them steady, they were ice-cold.

“Forget the Hunts. They are crazy.”

She pulled her hands away and crossed her arms. She avoided my gaze and stared into a dark corner next to the trash cans instead. When she spoke again, her voice was so low I could hardly hear her.

“It was me who found her.”

By her toneless voice I could tell she was referring to her mother. I never met Margaret. She had killed herself when Edith was still a child. Edith rarely spoke about the circumstances of her mother’s death. But when she did, her voice became hollow as a shell to hide the pain.

I sat there frozen, not knowing how to react.

“There was a letter“, she said. “I didn’t show it to anyone. Burned it right after reading. The shadow comes with the child, it said.”

My thoughts were racing as fast as my pulse. When Margaret became pregnant with Edith, her parents forced her to marry me. my father-in-law once confided in me. It was different times. Margaret had been miserable all her life. She’d felt chained to a man she did not love. But to make her last words an accusation? My heart ached for Edith. What a burden she must have carried all these years.

“I thought she blamed me. For everything.” Tears ran down her cheeks. I padded her back.

Most of what I knew about Margaret, Henry had told me. He’d loved his wife deeply, though she could never return the feeling. To him, she was a bird with broken wings. He cared for her, tried to make her happy. But the darkness of her soul eclipsed all joy. He’d told me about the bottles of pills he found after her death. All untouched. She hadn’t taken her prescription drugs in over a year.

“Margaret was sick,” I said, not sure myself if I was referring to her depression or her suicide note.

Edith shook her head and wiped away the tears with my handkerchief. She was still staring at the corner. I squinted my eyes to see what she was looking at. But there was nothing but darkness.

“The night I left you, I saw it, too. The shadow. I finally understood what she meant. The note was a warning.”

She sat in silence. I sat next to her, suddenly afraid. I took me a while to summon up the courage to ask her.

“What happened to our child?”

She stared at her hands, which she had folded as if in prayer. The knuckles were white because she pressed them so tightly together.

“I was stupid. Thought there might be a chance to make it go away. So that’s what I did.”

My heart stopped for a moment, but then I gently stroked her back.

“It’s okay,” I said.

Edith shook her head.

“Nothing’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s still there.”

“The child?”

She shook her head, her eyes fixated to the dark corner.

“Did you know I’m named after my grandmother?“ Edith laughed. It sounded desperate. “She hanged herself after my mother was born.”

Edith tore her gaze away from the dreadful corner and looked at me. Her eyes were wide.

“I’m to be its next prey.”

I clasped her folded hands and held her gaze while I rubbed some warmth into her icy fingers. I wanted to tell her those kinds of shadows did not exist. The ones that hunted people down. But then I saw the look in her eyes, and the words remained stuck in my throat. Her pupils were so wide, her eyes had lost all color. Trapped inside was a fragil thing afraid of the dark. The realization hit me like a gut punch. She believed the shadow to be real. It would kill her no matter what I believed. Haimi was right, Edith’s death was imminent.

A janitor opened the door and dragged a garbage bag to the trash cans. Edith withdrew her hands, stood up and brushed off her skirt. When she talked to me, I could tell by her evasive look that she had her guard up again. Our connection was lost.

“Well, I’m not your problem. Not anymore.”

She gave me back my handkerchief.

“Thanks for listening. I hope one day you can forgive me. For everything.”

She wanted to leave, but I held her back.

“I’ll protect you.”

Edith smiled at me. It was one of those smiles meant for people who have yet to come to terms with the facts of life.

She went to the door and opened it. Before she went through, she stopped and said without looking back. “I don’t even know why I let that mutt win. It was like my heart was drumming its name and I had to dance to the beat.”

The door fell shut behind her and its sound shook me to action. I had a life to save.

I hastened back to the arena. The announcer was already telling people to head to their seats. The final event was to begin in ten minutes. I made my way through hundreds of eager dog-lovers and spectators who trotted through the benching area to their seats. I needed to talk to her before I stepped into that ring.

Cynthia was exactly where I expected her to be, behind the purple curtain that veiled the backstage area from the ring, giving last instructions to the finalist’s handlers. She was leading Harvey who handled Irving himself to the front of the line.

“Winner of working group enters first“, she said when I tapped on her shoulder.

“We need to talk.”

Harvey looked at me intently.

“In private,” I urged.

Cynthia glared at me.

“Where the hell have you been?” she hissed.

I grabbed her elbow and dragged her with me.

“Sorry, but this is important. I need you to buy me some time.”

“Are you out of your mind? We are on a schedule.” She looked at me, her face red with anger. Then she saw my concerned expression. “What’s wrong?”

“Edith. Just give me fifteen minutes, that’s all I ask. You said you owed me one…”

Cynthia sighed and clenched her jaw.

“Are you going to tell me what’s up?”

“Later. Promise. First, I need to find Lady Winthrop.” I turned and ran in direction of the benching stations where I saw her last.

“Wait!” Cynthia called after me. I stopped. Cynthia handed her clipboard to her assistant, whispered something in her ear and ran towards me.

“She won’t be back there. I’ll get you to her.”

I looked at her in surprise.

“She’ll be in the VIP lounge. She always watches the show from there.”

I followed her.

“How would you know where Lady Winthrop is?” I asked.

“She’s personal reason I can’t judge today. Also known as my mom.“

I opened my mouth to reply something, but Cynthia glared at me. “No comments, please!” We hasted through the arena side-by-side. “You’d better fill me in before we get there.“

“You won’t believe it anyway.”

“Try me,” she said. So I did.

In the end, it was Cynthia who did the convincing not me. I waited for her outside the door. She left the VIP lounge with a cheerful gleam in her eye.

“That was kind of fun. We should do that more often, mother.”

Lady Winthrop, who showed her out, was neatly dressed in an expensive Chanel costume, her hair in an accurate bun. She rather looked like an embodiment of Cynthia’s opposite than her mother.

“So you agree?” I asked.

Lady Winthrop looked down her nose at me. She gave the convincing expression of someone recently been forced to swallow a muddy toad.

“I’d hardly call blackmail an agreement.”

“History is going to be written today, mother. Better make it the Westminster way. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Lady Winthrop pursed her lip.

“It’s me who pays the price.”

“It’s also you taking it,” Cynthia said. The lady turned away without another word.

Today

I see the boy I paid a buck to ring the bell run away. Nobody opens the door. The box begins to wiggle. I don’t take my eyes off it.

“How long do we wait?” I wriggle on my chair. I’ve grown attached to Hope the last couple of weeks. I don’t want her to fall into the wrong hands.

“Irving sniffed her out. This is her door. For sure,” says Haimi’s soft voice from the back seat of the car. She puts her tiny hand on my shoulder and gives me a slight squeeze.

“Thanks for joining our path,” she adds.

“I have to pass the time between now and my future anyway. Why not help save some lives until then?”

I smile at her through the rearview mirror. In her lap the pup has fallen asleep. Although he is adorable with his oversized head and the way he snores melts my heart, the sight of him stings. I miss the old mongrel. Who’d thought? Certainly not me. It had been hard to watch him die.

“Not dead,” the familiar voice inside my head sounds very sleepy, “moved on. But thanks for missing the old me.” Irving is awake now. He yawns and sticks out his tiny pink tongue. I feel like yawning, too. It has been a long day. We drove here forever.

From the corner of my eye I notice a movement. Finally, the door opens. Edith steps out and looks around confused. She notices the box. She bends down and fumbles with the knot. As soon as she has it open, Hope’s big head pops up, the lid wobbling on her head.

I get all tense.

“You sure she’s a shadow hunter?”

Now it is up to the Hunts to roll their eyes at me. “We’re sure,” they say in unison.

Edith takes Hope out of the box. She holds the pup with stretched arms and looks at it from all sides. Hope’s appearance might be an acquired taste, but she’s by far the cutest of the litter and comes mostly after her mother, the four-time Westminster winner. The fur on her body is silky smooth and has white-brown spots. On her head, the hair is black and wiry and sticks out in all directions. It looks as if she’s wearing a wig for fun. I see Edith’s face light up when she looks into the pup’s eyes. Hope’s are mostly brown, speckled with amber dots. All Eppingers have mesmerizing eyes. But that’s not the only thing that makes them special.

“When is it going to happen?” I ask tapping on the wheel. “You’ve waited four months for this, you can certainly wait a moment longer,” Irving’s dark voice sounds in my head. Irving stands on Haimi’s lap with is little hind legs, his front paws are pushed against the windows as he stares at his little sister. Or is Hope his daughter? I shake my head. It does not matter what she is. It only matters that she is.

Edith hugs the pup. The moment her ear reaches Hope’s muzzle, the little dog snaps at something invisible. Hope gives the thing a serious churn and only stops when Edith grabs her at the nape.

She laughs and shakes her head. I can tell by way she acts that she has already fallen for the dog. Who wouldn’t?

“Is it dead now?” I am referring to the shadow.

Harvey wipes the drool off his mouth before he answers.

“The dog’s not strong enough to kill it, yet. She needs to grow up first.“ He yawned. “Mission one completed. Let’s find a motel and rest for a few hours. Tomorrow, it’s time to set out on missions two, three, and four.” He lowers his gaze. On his lap is a different box in which three other pups sleep cuddled against each other.

“Maybe it’s time to call them by their names. They must be somewhere on there,” I suggest with a nod to his skin.

Harvey shrugs and pets the brown puppy that will save a little boy from drowning seven years from now.

“They are,” says Haimi, “he’s a prophecy after all. But I’m the only one who can read him and I never tell it all. Spoils the surprise.”

I am so used to the Hunt’s antics by now that I don’t even think twice about the absurdity of Haimi’s remark. My thoughts are still with Edith and Hope anyway. I am not ready to leave them. Not yet.

“What will happen until Hope’s fully grown?”

“Guess she’ll have a ball chasing the shadow around. Don’t worry, it won’t have a chance to get close to Edith anymore. And once she catches it for good, the three of you will start a new life together.”

“Sure?”

He winks at me and taps with a finger to the spot near is left nipple, where Edith’s and my story is written. “Dead Sure. Even had it branded.”

I laugh and start the car.

As I stop at the crossroad. In the rearview mirror I see Edith. She has discovered the note I attached to Hope’s name. I mouth the word as she reads them:

Now, you’ll always have Hope.

Keep her close. She’s special.

I’ve made sure.

I didn’t leave my name. She’ll know from whom it is. She has a dozen love letters in the same hand.

As I turn the corner, I wonder what making love to her will feel like after all those years. Memories of past encounters flash in front of my inner eye. I wind down the window for cool air, when a sudden realization startles me. With burning ears and squinted eyes I watch Irving through the rearview mirror. He looks out of the window, all innocence, but I could swear he’s grinning.

Anmerkung

In meinem Blog mache ich den Entstehungsprozess beim Schreiben sichtbar. Deshalb zeige ich Zwischenschritte so, wie ich sie tatsächlich entstanden sind. Das bedeutet, dass meine Zwischentexte Fehler haben und auch chaotisch sein können. Genau darum geht es mir: Zu zeigen, dass Zwischenschritte nicht perfekt sein müssen.

Obwohl es sich bei diesem Text um ein vorläufiges Endprodukt handelt, ist es nicht die finale Version meiner Erzählung. Weil ich so hart daran gearbeitet habe und die Geschichte bei den Lesenden so viel Anklang fand, möchte ich sie als ePub veröffentlichen. Dazu habe ich sie an einen professionellen Lektor weitergeleitet. Mit dieser Fassung habe ich allerdings der Coursera-Spezialisierung “Kreatives Schreiben” offiziell abgeschlossen und bestanden. Sie repräsentiert außerdem, wie weit ich mich während des Kurses ohne professionelle (bezahlte) Unterstützung selbst entwickeln konnte.

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