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Annie and I walked to the front of the class, leashless. I kept her black body in the bottom of my vision. Her tail waved slightly as we went. I was nervous and jumpy, but the sight of my beloved companion calmed me slightly. I easily recalled the routine I’d long since memorized.
“Sit!” I commanded. Instantly, Annie did as she was told.
“Down!” Once again, she did as she was told.
“Stay!” I took a deep breath, looking directly at her. This would determine so much; this was the hardest part for her. She didn’t like being separated from me. I turned and strode away. The atmosphere was palpable as I turned around, begging the small, mid-thigh-high body not to be right behind me.
She was where I’d left her. I would’ve jumped for joy, but there was still more to do.
“Come!” she hurried over to me, happy to be back by my side. I allowed the briefest of grins before continuing.
“Heel!” I walked across the ring, Annie directly by my side. We had finished our succession of drills… or so the rest of the class thought. This last trick was easy though; just a simple, easy little something designed to tip the scales in our favor. I turned toward the teachers of the class and bowed grandly. Beside me, I saw Annie flatten her front, but wiggle her rump in the air, bowing.
The class exploded in applause. I walked calmly back to my spot in line with Annie. The rest of the class went through their drills; German Shepherds, Beagles, and Labradors all going through the same motions. Watching, I felt out of place; not only was I one of two females in the class, at fifteen years old I was the youngest person there by a land slide. Impatiently, I waited while the teachers collaborated, deciding whether to pass or fail each human-dog team. I thought about what I would do if I failed. Would I have the courage to convince myself to try again? For Granddaddy? I thought of the time I’d made my promise to him, back when I was in second grade.
Mom had taken me to the nursing home. I had clung to her as we passed through the halls, recoiling at any open doors. The people with tubes in their noses terrified me; the stench of the place filled my head with dread.
In here, Anna, Mom had motioned me into a room. There was a man sharing my Granddaddy’s room, their sides separated by a curtain. I could just barely see the man. He scared me, but luckily he was asleep in his wheelchair.
Granddaddy? I’d asked tentatively. He’d smiled feebly at me.
Hi, Anna. How’s my favorite girl? I’d crept over to him.
I don’t like this place. Let’s leave, Granddaddy I’d whispered, never imagining he’d refuse my offer. I’d expected he’d throw back the blankets and jump up, like the Granddaddy I knew. He’d say ‘Good idea, Anna!’ but he didn’t.
I can’t leave, honey. I was stunned.
But Granddaddy, why not? He looked at me.
Because I need to be here. But I’m so lucky you came to see me. His voice had dropped to a whisper, you see that man over there? I hadn’t wanted to look, but Granddaddy had told me to, so I had.
Nobody ever comes to visit him. He’s very sad. Anna-lise, he’d looked me straight in the eye, using my full name so I’d know this was important, I want you to do something for him, and everyone else like him, who nobody comes to visit. Make them happy. I’d been terrified. I hated this place, and never wanted to come back. But Granddaddy’s words had worked a bit of magic, and I began to see the other man as a person, even though he still scared me.
I will, Granddaddy.
Promise me, Anna.
I promise. He’d nodded; content. Mom said we had to leave, and so I went with her. But first, I took off my plastic flower ring, it had been cheap from the dollar store, but I’d treasured it, and snuck over to put it in the other man’s lap. I’d looked at Granddaddy, who’d smiled. Then Mom and I had left.
I never saw my Granddaddy again. We had his funeral two weeks later; he’d died of a heart attack.
I shook myself as the teachers came back and addressed the class.
“Come forward when we call you. Richard!” he and his large German Shepherd stepped forward.
“Mary!” the other woman stepped forward.
“Anna-lise!” it was impossible I’d passed, yet I was so sure I’d passed the class. Annie and I walked forward to receive our certificate. I hugged my teammate, so glad we’d done it. As the certificate stated, she was now a “Fully Certified Therapy Dog.”
“How did you do?” Mom asked the instant I got in the car, Annie jumping up in my lap after me.
“We passed!” I exclaimed gleefully. It felt wonderful to say.
“Wonderful!” We drove up the road, but at the intersection, Mom turned left, driving the opposite direction of our home.
“Mom?” I questioned. She blushed.
“I knew you two would pass. I already set up your first visit.”
“Mom!” I’d had no time to prepare; I was terrified. I hadn’t set foot in a nursing home since the last day I saw Granddaddy. Annie swayed precariously on my lap as mom swerved into a parking lot.
“Relax. You’ll be fine,” she tried to reassure me, but I was far from reassured.
“I don’t have Annie’s harness or leash,” I tried to make excuses.
“There’s a duffle bag back there with everything you need. Take that paper work into the office.” I couldn’t find a way to get out of it. I replayed Granddaddy’s last words to me, trying to sap some strength from them.
Promise me, Anna.
I promise. So why did I feel so afraid, doing what I promised? With trembling fingers, I extracted the small harness and leash from the bag, attaching them to Annie. I did this slowly, trying to put off the inevitable. All too soon came the time I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to go.
I made my way towards the door, trembling. Annie nudged me, trying to figure out what was wrong.
“Oh, Annie,” I murmured. Then, biting my lip, I opened the double doors and stepped inside.
Immediately, the oppressive smell assaulted me. I tried to take a deep breath, as I always did to calm myself, but choked on the fumes. Tensed in fight-or-flight instinct, I headed for the office.
The receptionist looked up from her work, surprised. It was probably my age; I was young to be in this work.
“Anna-lise?” She questioned. I nodded and handed her the paper work. She smiled and presented me with a list of names and room numbers.
“These are the patients you’ll be visiting. They’re all very excited.” I nodded, still not trusting my voice. I turned with Annie by my side and wandered into the hallway. The first patient was Luciana Helewitz in room 443. Shakily, I slowly walked to the elevator, taking it to the fourth floor. I was trying not to breathe, the smell was overpowering.
441, 442, 443… this is it, I thought to myself, softly knocking on the door. When it appeared no one had heard me, I gathered my courage and knocked louder.
“Come in!” a woman’s voice called. I cringed; I’d been hoping no one would answer. I wanted to run away, but I thought of Granddaddy.
Promise me, Anna.
I promise. And I had promised. I steeled myself and opened the door.
It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. There were no tubes, no drooling. But the frail old woman was so thin, so fragile, I could barely discern her body under the white sheet. She smiled disarmingly at me, but I was still scared. Cautiously, I made my way forward with Annie.
“Now, who’s this?” she asked, still smiling.
“My name in Anna-lise, and this is Annie,” I tried to keep my voice steady.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Anna-lise. Are you feeling alright?” she asked solicitously. Was it that obvious? I wanted to shout NO! and race away, but Annie’s face couldn’t let me. This is where my dog belonged. Besides, this was where I’d promised Granddaddy I’d be.
“I’m fine, Miss. Helewitz.” Miss. Helewitz shook her head, the thin white hair scrabbling across her head. I had to fight a grimace.
“Please, call me Luciana,” she smiled again. I didn’t want to associate myself any closer with anyone here, except maybe the lady in the office.
Promise me, Anna.
I promise. I couldn’t escape my promise. So I resisted the deep breath I knew would strangle me with the stench, and made myself do it.
“Luciana. That’s a beautiful name.” I forced myself to walk over to the bed, pick up Annie, and hold her on my lap for Miss. Helewitz to pet.
“It means light,” And when Miss. Helewitz looked into my eyes, I saw why that was her name. Her light burned so bright. Even as I saw this, I was sitting closer to Luciana, warmed by her light.
Promise me, Anna.
I promise. I’m keeping my promise, Granddaddy. Do you see me now? Did you suspect this would happen?