Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

A Walk on the Beach

On Monday morning, Scott Rush’s fastsight led him to rescue an old man who’d been trapped on the second floor of his house by a fire, a woman who had driven into water too deep for her small car when a creek flooded over a low water bridge, and a kitten that had strayed into a busy road.

The kitten was actually just a coincidence. A good many speedsters had some kind of clairvoyance, just as most strongmen had some degree of invulnerability and nearly all tekes had at least a basic talent for telepathy. Rush’s own clairvoyance was good for small-scale problems, but not that small scale. Just as well, or even fast as he was, he’d never get any sleep between snatching kittens out of traffic and rabbits out of foxes’ jaws.

Rush didn’t bother to put on his suit for any of the morning’s work, since except for the kitten he didn’t slow down enough for anyone to get a decent look at him. On the Nuisance Scale, he rated the old man about a two, the woman definitely a seven – honest to God, people should know better. Besides, even solid-built as he was, Rush nearly threw his back out heaving her out of her car.

He rated the kitten a zero, of course. Kittens were by definition not a nuisance. Even when a kitten’s tiny claws left pinpricks of blood across the meat of Rush’s thumb. Careless. Rush, a big guy himself, was more used to hefty dogs than little kittens.

He took the kitten along to Emma’s vet appointment, for which he was four and a half minutes late. Speed was all very well, but even Rush had to take a car when Emma was with him, and there was nothing he could do to hurry traffic or make lights turn green. Emma didn’t mind. She enjoyed car rides. She sat upright and dignified in the passenger seat, ignoring the occasional squirrel but always ready to thump her tail at the smile of any friendly passerby.

Cindy was at the front desk this morning, which was good. Of Dr. McMahon’s three receptionists, Cindy was the one who always had patients’ charts pulled ahead of time, and an extra biscuit for Emma. Every dog who came through the door got one biscuit. Emma got two: the first a tiny little Milkbone biscuit that was probably too small for her to taste and the other, today, from a special stash of sizable peanut-butter biscuits, shaped like pumpkins because it was nearly Halloween.

“You’re right on time, just like always,” Cindy said cheerfully. She leaned over the desk. “Good morning, Emma! How’s the old lady today?”

Emma accepted the biscuits with a polite wave of her heavy tail; one biscuit and then the other disappeared at a bite. Then Emma whuffled along Cindy’s arm to make sure she hadn’t missed a hidden treat, sighed heavily, and sat, regal and patient, watching Rush for a cue about what they might do next.

Cindy straightened, wiped her hands on a tissue, and said to Rush, “We’ve got pumpkin cookies too, if you want one. People cookies. Another client brought them.” She set the plate up on the counter and nudged it toward Rush. “You might as well have one; Dr. McMahon’s running a little late. Sorry. We had a hit-by-car first thing this morning. You’ve decided Emma needs a pet?” She nodded at the kitten, currently tucked mostly out of sight under Rush’s jacket. It was a pale handful of gray fluff with a white chin and enormous greenish eyes. But it was a bold little thing. When Rush extracted it from its hiding place and set it on the counter, it strolled a few steps with its tail up in the air and then paused to bat at one of the pens lying nearby.

Rush took a pumpkin cookie and broke it neatly in half. “You nearly had two hit-by-cars. Though I don’t expect there’d have been much left of this little guy. How’s the…” Rush tilted his head, raising his eyebrows inquisitively as he handed Emma her half of the cookie.

“Beagle. Sweet little girl. Poor thing followed her nose a little too far and got lost, I suppose. The driver almost stopped in time. Lacerations, bruises, but nothing seems to be broken and Dr. McMahon doesn’t think there’re any internal injuries. She’ll be all right.” Cindy shook her head. “The driver who hit her brought her in, but she says she can’t keep a dog. You know what my daughters’ll say if they hear the story. We’ll see if anybody turns up looking for her, but you know, I’ve always liked beagles.”

Beagles weren’t Rush’s personal favorite breed – too small, too vocal – but he nodded. “No tags?”

“Nope. People’re careless.” Cindy ran a fingertip down the kitten’s back, stroked along its jaw, peeked under its tail, and went on comfortably, “Cute little guy. A little young to leave his mother, but he sure looks like he thinks the world’s his oyster, doesn’t he?” She smiled at Rush. “He’s lucky a good Samaritan spotted him. Sure you don’t want to keep him? Well, maybe the beagle’s owner will turn up and be in desperate need of a kitten to keep his dog company.” She scooped the kitten up just before he could jump off the counter and headed for the back of the hospital via the staff door, adding over her shoulder, “Doctor McMahon will be ready in just a minute, if you want to get a weight on Emma.”

Rush looked down at Emma. She was wistfully watching Cindy carry the kitten away, but, feeling his eyes on her, she turned her head and gazed into his face. Her ears pricked forward inquiringly: Are we going to do something fun? Are there more biscuits? Emma was always hopeful, even at the vet. Perhaps especially at the vet, most especially on beautiful fall mornings. She’d long since understood that arriving at the vet often meant meeting friendly people and, in nice weather, always meant biscuits and a detour by the park on the way home: overall a combination of all her favorite things in life.

Rush tried not to notice how much gray grizzled her black muzzle or how her blocky head had become bonier over the past year. Her wide-set eyes were just as trusting, her ears just as alert, her broad head just as silky as ever when he rested his hand on it. But he didn’t have to ask her to sit on the scale to know that Emma had lost weight since spring – maybe just since midsummer.

He started to turn toward the scale, paused, tilted his head, murmured, “Stay,” reinforced the command with a palm-out gesture, and took not quite five and a quarter seconds to catch up with and stop a driverless car whose driver had forgotten to put it in park. On the way back he prevented a Pokémon Go player from walking right into traffic – on the Nuisance Scale, a nine: you’d think teenagers would have more brains than kittens but somehow they didn’t seem to. Then he stepped back into his place beside Emma, straightened his jacket, ran a hand down Emma’s neck – possibly just a little thinner under her thick coat than it had been – and smiled at Cindy, who, now kitten-less, was just coming back into the front of the veterinary hospital.

“Haven’t got her weight yet?”

“Just about to.” Rush beckoned for Emma to step onto the scale, lifted a finger to suggest a sit, and frowned at the number that appeared.

“Seventy-eight,” Cindy said, scribbling the number in Emma’s chart. “Down ten, almost eleven pounds since July.”

Rush nodded silently. Cindy’s tone was cheerfully neutral, but he didn’t need anyone to tell him that a dog Emma’s age shouldn’t lose too much weight. He’d been trying different kinds of food, but Emma didn’t seem to have much appetite lately.

Cindy slipped Emma another peanut-butter biscuit and nodded toward the far end of the room. “Exam room one, and the doctor will be right with you.”

* * * * *

Exam room one had a picture of a canine skeleton on one wall and a lot of client photos on another. Emma was up there, nearly in the middle, a big eight-by-ten photo in a narrow black frame. Rush had taken that picture eight years ago, a month or so after a frantic episode involving a swallowed sock and emergency surgery. In the picture, a much younger Emma was standing solid and four-square on the beach, the lacey foam of a retreating wave pearl-white against her massive paws, her black coat shining almost blue in the brilliant light. Her head was up, her ears alert, her gaze fixed on something out of sight. Swimmers, probably. Just in case someone needed rescue. She looked ready to leap into the sea, ready to haul any weight any distance – she looked like she’d be delighted to try to rescue a whole shipload of distressed sailors, one at a time or all together.

Not the biggest Newfoundland ever born; no one ever mistook Emma for a bear. Or hardly anyone. But no one ever mistook her for a Labrador, either. She looked like exactly what she was: the powerful kind of dog who would fearlessly challenge storm waves to rescue drowning swimmers. Serious, intent, alert, waiting for a word: Give me the go and I’ll get that guy swimming way out there right back to shore.

She would, too. No one had ever had to teach her to haul swimmers to shore. The hard part had been teaching her to wait for permission.

Even these days, Rush had to hold her back on the beach, or she’d go after any splashing kid. Never mind that Rush himself could rescue a drowning swimmer faster and more easily than even Emma. Run straight across the surface of the water, circle the drowning victim, scoop him up and back to shore so fast no one saw anything but a blur across the water.

Come to think of it, the one drowning kid Rush had ever pulled out of a riptide, he’d have missed if not for Emma. Drowning victims didn’t scream and flail; they didn’t have the breath to scream. They drowned paddling in frantic but quiet desperation.

He hadn’t even known that, then. Emma had known it. She’d been born knowing it, apparently. She’d been the one to spot a little girl drowning not a dozen feet from her family, when Rush had been watching blindly, with no idea what he was seeing. His stupidity hadn’t mattered. Even if he hadn’t been there, the girl would still have been fine. Emma wasn’t fast enough to run across the surface of the sea and scoop up a little girl and get back again without ever getting her toes wet, but she’d have done the job. Nobody could drown with Emma on lifeguard duty.

A hero dog. Emma didn’t need special powers to be a hero: not superspeed and not the clairvoyance Rush called fastsight. She just needed to be a Newfoundland, and a good dog.

She was that. A good dog. A great dog. Rush ruffled his fingers through the fur behind Emma’s ears. She sighed and leaned heavily against him.

Dr. McMahon’s voice was audible, the words not distinguishable yet, but approaching. The doctor’s voice was deep and unhurried, the kind of voice that calmed skittish dogs and suspicious cats and worried owners. His unseen hand fell on the doorknob, which rattled and began to turn.

Rush blinked, turning his head, his attention snagged by something not too far away… something… his fastsight resolved, and he sighed. Before the sigh was finished, he’d dug his suit out from the trunk of his car, changed, run a couple miles nearly to the limit of his fastsight, and snagged the pistol out of the hand of the kid who’d pulled it on the convenience store attendant at the Shell station. Rush laid the gun on the counter, handcuffed the kid, and said sternly, scowling, “I have important things to do. I’m a busy man, you understand? Don’t make me come back here.” He didn’t let himself speak too fast. That had been about the most difficult thing he’d ever had to learn: how to see fast and move fast and yet remember to speak sloooowly. It took time to get those words out: nearly four seconds.

The kid gaped. The store attendant grinned and started to say something, but Rush didn’t stay to listen. He whipped back to the animal hospital and changed out of his suit – a nuisance, but it was his rule to wear it when stopping a crime. Wear it and make sure he was seen. Everyday rescue work was one thing; for that it didn’t matter whether he was recognized. But visible costumes might help deter minor crime. That was one theory, anyway. So Rush always wore his suit when he interfered with a mugging or robbery or whatever, and tried to remember to slow down enough to be visible. Even when it was inconvenient.

He was back in the exam room, leaning against the wall out of immediate line of sight from the door, pretending to look at his phone, just as Dr. McMahon entered the room and glanced around for him.

“Ah, yes,” said Dr. McMahon, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Yes, good morning.” He refocused on Emma. “And a good morning to you, Emma, my girl. And how are you this fine day?” Bending – he didn’t have to bend far – he patted Emma firmly on the shoulder, ran a hand down the length of her body, and frowned at Rush. “Lost a little weight, I see.”

“Her appetite hasn’t been great, lately. I’ve been adding treats to her meal… ”

“Have you, then?”

“Chicken, tuna, a little sprinkle of Parmesan… ”

“Hmm. Yes. That all sounds tasty, I must say. Yes. That’s what brought you in? How does she seem otherwise? A little grayer, a little slower, a little stiff getting up and down, I expect, but not much change from July, I hope?” Rather absently, Dr. McMahon began checking Emma over. A casual glance at her mouth, a firm touch down her spine, a light pressure at her hocks. She bent her head around curiously and nudged his ear, and the doctor chuckled and heaved himself back to his feet.

Always short, pudgy, and balding; and now, like Emma, Dr. McMahon was just a little grayer, a little slower, and a little more stiff getting up and down than he once had been. He had given Emma her first puppy shots and, later, a stern injunction against eating socks. Later, he’d heard the story about Emma’s spotting the drowning girl with approval but without surprise. “Good breeding, sound instincts, and sensible as they come,” he’d agreed. “Her father was just the same. A Landseer Newf. Handsome creature. Impossible for anyone to drown with that dog on duty. He saved a man once, too. A friend of his owner’s son. The young man was too drunk to realize he should stay out of the pool… dogs do have more sense than people, sometimes. His owner sent me a picture.”

Rush had found it on the wall, unframed, up at the top. A casual snapshot, yellowing a bit around the edges: a heavy-boned black-and-white Newfoundland, the front half of his body draped across a man’s lap. The man was grinning, one arm resting across the dog’s shoulders. Half hidden as the man was, his pride in and love for his dog was clear. Judging from that photo, that dog had probably weighed twice what Emma did. Or what she should weigh.

“No, not much change from this summer,” he answered now. “But she’s lost a few pounds. I just thought… I didn’t like to let it go on without checking. She’s always been an easy keeper. Never missed a meal, but now lately, sometimes I have to feed her every bite out of my hand.”

“Hmm.”

“She likes the tuna, though.”

“I should think so. Very suitable.” The doctor removed his glasses, folded them, and tapped them lightly against his palm. “All good ideas. Keep it up. I’ll give you a recipe for liver brownies, if you like.”

Rush tilted his head. “I thought you didn’t approve of people food for dogs.”

“They’re medicinal of course,” Dr. McMahon explained with a perfectly straight face. “I’ll type the recipe out on a prescription label for you. Chicken livers, wheat flour, barley flour, potato flakes, a couple eggs, a dash of garlic powder. Puree and bake. Some of the most finicky older dogs love them. I had a sick Papillon eat nothing but liver brownies for a month once. We added crushed calcium to his, though. Those little guys, every bite matters.” He paused. “I’ll also take just a tube or two of blood, if you don’t mind. Check this and that… ”

“Kidneys, liver… ”

“Just a precaution.” Dr. McMahon unfolded his glasses and put them back on.

Rush held off the vein himself. A tech could have done it, but Emma was so easy to handle it didn’t seem worth the bother of calling a tech.

“Nothing more cooperative than a Newf,” Dr. McMahon observed, patting Emma approvingly on the shoulder and heaving himself slowly back to his feet, purple-topped tubes of blood in one hand and the syringe in the other. “Veins like hoses and never nervous about anything. At least not a grand lady like Emma.”

Rush nodded. “Results… what, tomorrow?”

“Or the next day. Likely enough everything’ll come back normal. Or as normal as we can expect, at Emma’s age.” Dr. McMahon took off his glasses again and tapped them gently against his hip. He didn’t look at Rush, keeping his slightly myopic gaze on Emma instead. “Listen… ”

“I know,” Rush said, to stop him.

“These big dogs… ”

“I know,” Rush said again.

“She’s a fine lady,” the doctor said gently. Bending, he ran his hand down Emma’s neck and along her sturdy back, his attention absorbed. “As fine as they come. A touch of arthritis – well, that comes to most of us. Tuna’s fine. Better than fine. Get the kind packed in oil, right? Try those liver brownies. Whatever she likes. We’ll see if we can’t get a few pounds back on her, shall we? Parmesan’s got a lot of salt in it. A dog this size, though, a sprinkle of Parmesan isn’t going to hurt her.”

“That’s what I figured.” Rush paused. He took a breath… and waved a hand irritably, his fastsight presenting him, inescapably, with the kind of problem a speedster just had to handle. Down on Lower Washburn where the road had flooded, a school bus, a curve where the fast-moving flooded creek had worn away the shoulder – the bus was already tipping – only a few kids on it and no doubt they’d be fine, the drop wasn’t far and even flooded that wasn’t much of a creek. But still. Any number of strongmen who could shove buses around with one hand, without straining a muscle, and where were they? Brick, Samson, even that oaf Hercules, but not one of them anywhere handy. Naturally.

Rush knew his annoyance wasn’t quite fair. Strongmen rarely had any kind of clairvoyance. That’s why strongmen mostly did best as team players. Knowing this didn’t stop him from being annoyed.

This time Rush was in a hurry. He made it to the bus well before it finished its fall, barely a quarter second after he first spotted it. He had all seven kids and the driver – a heavyset guy, even for Rush not the easiest burden to lug around – off the bus and up the hill on the other side of the road half a second after that. He was back in the exam room less than two and two-eighth seconds after he’d left.

Emma woofed at him, gently, and he touched her head.

Dr. McMahon blinked, rubbed his eyes, put his glasses back on, and straightened with a grunt, rubbing his back. “Listen, Scott,” he said, rare use of a client’s first name.

“I know,” Rush said, with some force.

“I know you do. So do what you can to make sure she enjoys this fall. As you always have, to be sure. Gentle walking. Swimming is fine, if she wants to. Nothing better, really. Try not to look too far ahead, if you want my advice. This is as pleasant an October as I can recall. Enjoy it. That’s my official medical advice. Make sure Emma enjoys it. And I’ll let you know about that bloodwork in a day or two. Right?”

“…right.” Rush met Emma’s dark eyes. That was too hard. He looked up instead, but his gaze snagged once more on the framed photograph of the younger Emma, Emma in the spring sunshine with the white foam washing around her feet and the joy of life in every line of her body. That was worse.

“She still loves life,” Dr. McMahon said gently. “Taking her to the beach this morning, are you? Good. Go on, then, and try not to worry.”

“I never worry,” Rush lied. “Bad for the digestion.”

“Get a pumpkin cookie on your way out,” the doctor prescribed gravely. “Good for the digestion.”

* * * * *

The beach wasn’t crowded in October. The water was too cold for swimming, the concessions shut up for the season, the no-lifeguard-on-duty signs prominently displayed. A few other dog owners were out, though. A young woman threw a stick into the waves for her beautiful Golden to bring joyfully back, which the dog did, over and over, with flair and speed and utter delight. Rush couldn’t help but watch. He tried not to resent the Golden’s obvious youth and vigor. In a few years, that dog too would be old.

He kicked at the sand and looked away from the joyful young Golden Retriever. Emma ambled across the damp sand, moving slowly and deliberately. Her head was up, though, and her tail waving gently. She wasn’t watching the Golden or the young dog’s owner. She was gazing out across the waves. Just in case someone might be out there after all. Just in case someone might be in trouble. She moved always at that same deliberate pace, and always watched for the distant head of anyone in the water.

And Rush walked slowly beside her. As long as Emma wanted to amble down this beach, at any pace she found comfortable, Rush would walk beside her, and adjust his speed to hers.