The jagged edges of the key pressed into his right paw. The key had snapped earlier when Royal tried to muscle the car to start. The afternoon sun did little to warm his cold bones as he sat on the low brick wall facing the gas station. The hills of Northern California flowed behind him. His car, dusty and travel worn, lingered idly next to a pump.
The days were shorter and the sun was inching its way towards the horizon.
He looked at his shadow. Déjà vu fell upon him: Four months ago, in a suburb of Tokyo, he saw the same shadow cast onto the ground in front of a convenience store. Just above this shadow, the window reflected a sad, sleepless dog with shaggy hair.
With this memory came a torrent of regret. Royal grit his teeth.
Panda Bear ambled towards Royal, his arms full of snacks.
Royal popped up and tossed the broken key into his car. Panda eased his large figure into Royal’s spot on the brick wall. Panda offered him a bag of biscuits, Royal declined.
“What or who are you thinking about this time?” Panda asked as he opened a bag of fruit snacks.
Panda threw a handful of fruit snacks into his mouth.
Royal said, “We had an argument during my last trip.”
As he formed the words, Royal felt the blue water roll over him.
“It was bad.”
Royal gazed at his shadow, its outlines grew ever fainter with the winter sun.
“I just grabbed what I needed and left our place in Kyoto for Narita. My flight wasn’t till late afternoon so I spent the early morning hours roaming Tokyo in a daze.”
Panda popped open a bag of bamboo snacks.
“Sorry. Well, now you should be wiser after you’re experience with Elle,” Panda said.
“With Elle, I made it seem I was being selfless trying not to hurt her. Thinking about it…truth is, it was fear. Fear of my life outside of her. I already had one foot out the door and I couldn’t make that next step.”
Cool wind brushed Royal’s fur. The sound of cars became the lapping of the ocean.
“With Mari…when we were living in Kyoto, I remember passing this old bridge. Underneath, the water was rushing past to some far off lake and the sky was a clear blue. I knew she was waiting for me back at the apartment. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with affection. I said to myself, ‘This is it, this is the feeling.’”
Royal rubbed his tired legs.
“Then that night, the feeling disappeared. We were angry at each other again, I had to go back to California…and she said I was cold…”
“Like with Elle,” Panda added.
A young couple exchanged kisses in a car next to Royal’s. The girl laughed and looked around embarrassingly as they drove away.
“I hated this cycle so much, we…I had to make a choice…Did you know I got her a Costco card?”
“Even though she ain’t even here?”
“Yeah. I did a myriad of small little things she’ll never know, I wanted to keep both feet inside the door for once…”
A truck edged along the horizon and exited towards the gas station.
“Sometimes, I’ll feel so empty knowing we’re together, but not together. I feel as if I might get sucked into my own black hole.”
The truck pulled up to the station.
“Quadruple Ais here,” Panda said.
“Let’s go home,” Royal said.
With the night sky above, Royal Mutt helped Panda Bear unpack from the car. They stood in front of a door built into the side of the mountain. Along the mountainside a curved line of lights cast an orange glow on them.
Panda Bear handed Royal the bamboo plant.
“This is for you buddy.”
Royal gently took it into his paws. He smelled the leaves.
“I don’t know if I have the credentials to help you out; it seems that you already have a pretty good idea of your flaws and your strengths,” Panda Bear said.
Royal raised his head attentively.
Panda continued, “My writing professor Mr. G, a man of a bear, told me once, ‘Things will happen when you’re ready.’”
Panda put on his backpack.
“Maybe you weren’t meant to be with Elle and that’s led to this test with you and Mari and I hope it works out, I really do.”
Panda turned towards his house. Royal felt the weight of the bamboo plant in his paws.
“One more thing.” Panda circled back to Royal.
“Don’t be so arrogant or naïve to think that it’s all your fault. Maybe there are some issues that Mari has that you don’t know about.”
A breeze parted the dark curtains inside Royal’s mind.
“I know I can be pretty tunnel vision sometimes.”
“I can tell by the way you drive.”
“Go to sleep, Bear.”
Royal took the scenic route through his hometown: past the old house he lived as a pup, the street where he had his first fight, the school where he had his first crush.
He carried his bags up the stairs into the apartment complex. As he made his way down the hall with the flickering light, Boe Badger, his cantankerous neighbor eyed Royal suspiciously through the window. Royal waved, Badger shut the curtains.
Royal entered his bare apartment; it was empty save for a shabby bed slumped in one corner next to a plastic table. He carefully set down the bamboo plant and unloaded his bags onto the floor. He turned on his laptop.
He could feel his heart bracing itself for her voice. He felt the wall encircle his interior. He searched to find a door.
 American Auto Association for Animals
Special Thanks to Adrian Sangalang for the two beautiful photos pictured above!