Humans Rarely Understand

The original version of this story was written for the 2015 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest.  This expanded version was a finalist in the 2017 Pen2Paper contest, and (based on audience voting on Pen2Paper’s web site) was the #2 “audience favorite.” 

Soldier and Dog Silhouette

I wait for Matt to park the car, squirming a little in my seat as I try to contain my excitement. I don’t get many chances to relax, and this is my favorite way to go about it. Matt circles the parking lot once before choosing a spot, then sits for several minutes, looking around before getting out of the car.

When he opens the door for me, my first instinct is to bound out and run for the gate – but I don’t. I step out deliberately and take my place at his side, keeping pace with him as we walk. I wait patiently as he closes the gate behind us, then turns to look at me.

“Go play, buddy!”

He takes a seat on a shaded bench, a little apart from the rest of the humans.

I zoom across the open field in joyous arcs and spirals, enjoying the chance to stretch my legs – but always downwind, where I can hear and smell him.

A ball whizzes past my nose. I kick up tiny bits of turf as I change course to snatch it from the air, juggling it briefly in my teeth. Just as I get a secure grip, someone I don’t know skids to a disappointed stop in front of me. After a sniff of introduction, I set the ball at her feet. She ducks her head toward it once, and when I don’t object she picks it up and dashes jubilantly back to her person.

A teenager cleaning up after his friend drops the metal lid loudly onto the bin and I sprint toward Matt, knowing that he will need me. His smell has changed to “startled” but I am already there, licking his cheeks, eyes, and nose – reminding him that I need him here with me, not in the Faraway Place where the memories hold him prisoner.

The humans see me leap into Matt’s lap and think I am afraid. They don’t see me licking the tears away or hear Matt murmuring his thanks. He doesn’t like them to know. He told me once that people think it’s OK for me to be frightened by a sound, but they don’t understand when he is.

Since then, I work hard to stand between other people and Matt at the Bad Times. It doesn’t matter if they think I am afraid. What matters is that Matt knows I am there to protect him.

The anxious smell fades and Matt buries his face in my shoulder, scratching my ears in gratitude. We sit like that until Matt says “Go play!” and I know it’s OK for me to leave him.

I am careful not to run too far, and I stay with the wind so I can smell how he is doing.

A Boy toddles nearby, oblivious to the two shepherds rough-housing behind him. I race toward them and his dam cries out, gaping at me in horror. It’s clear she thinks I am going to harm the child.

I arrive just in time to plant my body between the Boy and the playing dogs, falling to the grass as the rambunctious pair barrels into my flank. We tumble over one another, but nobody hits the Boy.

The shepherds move on, running circles around one another and wrestling their way into another corner of the park. I turn my attention to the wailing Boy. His tears are just emotion – I don’t smell anything wrong with his body.

Matt arrives a moment later. He sweeps the crying child up in one arm, scratching my shoulder with his free hand. He teases a smile from the Boy before placing him in the Woman’s lap. She thanks Matt over and over, but he refuses to take credit.

“Not at all – he was very smart, to hide behind Angel so those shepherds wouldn’t bowl him right over!” He looks down at me and says “Good job, buddy.”

“Angel?” the woman asks. “Isn’t that a girl’s name?”

“People seem to think so, though I don’t know why,” Matt replies as he always does. “If you read the Bible, all the Angels were male – Michael, Gabriel, Rafael…”

She leans down to pet me, and I smell it – the Wrongness near her heart. I press my nose against the place where the Bad Thing is growing, trying to draw her attention to it, but she doesn’t understand. She pushes me away, giggling something about my ‘cold nose.’

“Hunh, I guess you’re right. I never really thought it about it,” the dying woman responds. “Which angel is he named for?”

“All of them,” Matt smiles in return. “None of them. He’s my guardian angel.” Matt turns his smile to me. “Couldn’t get through life without him,” he says to her as he turns to walk away.

The woman smiles indulgently at Matt’s expression of affection for his pet. She doesn’t understand that I am more than just Matt’s companion. Matt and I are a team; he says he is not mission-ready until I am beside him. I heard him tell Doc that knowing I have his six is what makes it possible for him to stand this watch at all.

His muscles are almost relaxed as he walks toward the gate.

“Kid could have really got hurt, little Angel.” Matt turns to look at me as he walks. “Saving lives deserves a little recognition. How about some ice cream?”

I leap forward, whirling to sit in the path and wag my tail so Matt knows I like his idea. As he catches up to me, I return to my place at his side.

Matt opens the car door for me and I step up into the back seat. The door closes and for a moment the heat is suffocating. I ignore it; there are more important things to worry about. Matt is alone; I can’t hear him well or smell him, and there is nobody at his side.

I make as quick a turn as I can on the narrow seat, until I am able to see him reaching for the door handle. Cool air drifts in with him. He turns the key and when he opens the windows a breeze rolls across my nose. I open my mouth to let it cool my tongue.

Matt praises me as he drives to the Ice Cream – but he still smells restless and apprehensive. Matt and I have our routines, and it makes him unhappy when they are disrupted as they have been today. It will be all right though. We will eat ice cream and sit in the sun, and I will help him to relax again. When the anxious smell is gone, we will go to Bank, and to Grocery, and carry on just as we planned.

Matt parks the car and gets out. I pick up my uniform from the seat beside me, and set it between my paws as he opens my door. He leans over my shoulder to arrange the vest across my back, and I lick his cheek reassuringly. I know it makes him feel better, because he laughs as he steps back from the doorway. I step out and take my place at his side, keeping pace with him as we walk.

At first I didn’t understand that humans can’t smell the obvious – but I have been doing this job for years, and I am smarter now. I can tell the difference between the people who pretend not to look at us because they are uncomfortable, and the curious ones who don’t understand why a healthy-looking guy like Matt would need to team up with me. Some, of course, pay no attention at all, eating their ice cream and talking to their companions without noticing us.

But, it seems, there’s always one…

This time, it is a man at the table against the wall. He looks at me and remarks – just loud enough for Matt to hear – that people aren’t allowed to bring pets into places that serve food. Matt pretends not to notice, but I see his muscles harden and smell his tension.

“C’mon, Derek,” the man’s companion says. “Didn’t you see the dog’s vest? PTSD Dog. Guy’s a vet. Lay off, already.”

“PTSD isn’t even real,” the man scoffs. He is speaking to his friend, but looking straight at us. “It’s what cowards say so they can avoid doing the hard work.”

I can smell how badly Matt wants to bite this man, but his clenched fists stay at his side. The other humans have gone silent; the man’s companion looks apologetically at Matt, then looks away.

“Just what branch of the service did they teach you that in, sir?” Matt asks flatly. His eyes are dark, and I can feel him edging into the Faraway Place. I lean against this leg, anchoring him here with me where he belongs.

“You don’t have to be in the military to know that,” the man sputters. “Everyone knows PTSD is just made-up shrink talk for boys who can’t handle a man’s job.”

I can hear some of the humans murmuring. A few look compassionately at Matt and one scowls at the man, but nobody speaks or moves to intervene. Matt’s words – the ones he has been practicing with Doc – are polite, but I can smell his shame and anguish.

“PTSD,” Matt takes a breath and squares his shoulders, “is the price of asking a man to endure what no man should have to do.”

Matt’s nightmares are in his eyes and the hard set of his mouth. He and the man stare at one another for a moment in mutually defiant silence, their hackles up.

I nudge Matt’s hand until he notices me. When I have his attention, I lead him to the counter – away from the man who will never understand.

We always get the same thing, but it takes Matt a moment to refocus his thoughts so he can order. The girl behind the counter eyes him with cautious sympathy. She does not speak to him except to tell him how much he owes.

We take our ice cream outside.

I rest a foot on Matt’s toes before ducking my nose into the dish, so I will know if he moves away from me. I finish my treat quickly so I can turn all my attention back to him.

He is eating slowly and silently. He smells of anger and pain. I rest my head on his knee and it takes him too long to look down at me. He is drifting into the Faraway Place.

He sets the remains of his ice cream in front of me. I am too busy working to be tempted, but if I ignore it he will think that something is wrong. I wolf the ice cream down as quickly as I can, and place my head back on his knee.

“That’s all there is, buddy,” he says with a despondent smile. He scratches my ears slowly, staring past me at a woman who is walking toward us with her two children. When she notices Matt and me, she pauses, reading my vest. She leads the children away toward the farther door, throwing wary glances over her shoulder at us until the door closes behind them.

Matt stares after her for a moment, then stands to throw away the ice cream containers. We walk slowly to the car, and once we are inside he sits for several minutes with both hands wrapped tightly around the wheel.

I nudge him lightly on the neck, then lean over his shoulder to rest my chin on his chest. After a moment, his hand leaves the wheel and comes to rest on my head. We sit like this until the car is warm enough to make Matt uncomfortable. I settle back into my seat as he takes a deep breath and turns the key.

There will be no Bank today, no Grocery. Today has become a Bad Time.


Matt drives home without saying a word to me. He turns all of the locks on the door, hangs his keys on their hook, and arranges his wallet and phone precisely on the table without seeming to notice. He steps out of his shoes and walks across the room without remembering to help me out of my uniform.

No, he hasn’t forgotten. Matt never forgets me. If he didn’t take off my uniform, it’s because he needs me on watch.

He lies on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, and when I walk over to stand at his side, he doesn’t acknowledge me. He is wandering in the borders of the Faraway Place.

I can’t allow that.

I retrieve his phone and drop it on his chest. He wraps one hand around it, laying the other on my head and smiling at me sadly, gratefully…hopelessly. He presses a few buttons, looking for the right person to call, and then gives up.

The phone drops to the floor.

Matt’s humans say that they are “there for him” and “want to help.” But his humans are rarely here. Matt is supposed to be able to call them at times like this, to tell them that his wounds are bothering him.

But Matt can’t make the call.

Even if he could, they wouldn’t understand. They can’t smell the monsters that torment his heart.

The humans can’t help. That’s why Matt has me. I am there when he wakes up in the night. When someone knocks unexpectedly at the door and he must decide whether the stranger is a threat to us. When people who can’t understand remind him that he will never again be like them.

I am the one who refuses to leave his side, who assures him that he is not alone.

The humans may not understand – but I do. I will keep him from being dragged into the Faraway Place. It’s a place I can’t go – so he can’t go either. We stand this watch together.

We’re a team, after all.

Matt picks up the television remote and settles back onto the sofa. I climb up next to him, resting my head comfortingly on his chest. He wraps an arm around me and lies without moving, still holding the remote. As the hours pass, the anxious and unhappy smell fades a little but does not wholly subside, and the smell that he calls “adrenaline” remains strong. Eventually, it wears him out and he falls asleep, the remote landing next to his phone.

I settle onto his chest where my weight will comfort him and wait for the nightmares to come.

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5 thoughts on “Humans Rarely Understand

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  1. This piece is incredibly beautiful. It makes me think (and hope) you once had a pupper like Angel watching over you. You wrote him as though you’d known him. I had a hard time with the last line…a banshee flew by and threw onions in my eyes. Well done!

    1. Thank you for taking time to read. 🙂 Sorry about those onions – baen sidhe stores them near here – she seems to do that a lot to folks who come to read this one.

      If you’d like to meet him, you can find a lovely photo of Jais Ange (“Angel”) Mes Yeux Vigilants at the top of this post:

      *Angel’s lovely photo is by Jerry and Lois Photography of Seattle, WA

      **Angel’s service dog training was completed at Paws-Abilities Total Dog Center in Fife, WA

  2. Beautifully written. I really enjoyed reading it. Sorry it took so long to give feedback. This story touched home. Recently I fostered a beautiful Rottweiler that we believed to have PTSD. She was severely abused. I had the pleasure of adopting her out to a disabled army veteran. Him and Bia are working on forming an amazing bond together. As Bia is not quick to trust. I have the pleasure of continuing to keep up-to-date as he friended me on Facebook. I’m going to pass your story on to him.

    1. Thanks Loretta – I am so glad you enjoyed the story. I look forward to hearing about Bia and her adoptee as they work forward together.

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