A stray dog wandered into our yard one day, scaring the chickens into a real tizzy. They clucked and squawked like they were under attack. Daddy ran out to the porch to see what the hell was going on, and we followed close behind, my sister and me. We saw the mutt right away, and it was a strange one, though he wasn’t after the chickens at all. He’d pushed his way through an opening in the fence surrounding our empty doghouse, sniffing around like he’d found his home at last. We’d lost our last litter of pups to parvo, and Daddy said the virus lived in the ground there, all around the doghouse. We tossed everything out that could have been contaminated, like the bowls for food and water, a couple of chew toys, and a tattered old blanket. We took our little terrier and moved her to a new home, out near the shed. Daddy was still trying to decide what to do with the old doghouse.
Rubbing his stubbly chin like he often did when thinking something over, he glanced down at us for a moment before returning his gaze to the dog. “Tell you what,” he said, sensing our excitement, “you two get rid of that dog, or I will. Got it?”
“Yeah,” my sister said, clasping her hands together. “We’ll chase it off.”
“You better,” he warned. “You ain’t gonna like it if I have to take care of it.”
I watched my sister take off, ready for the challenge. She looked gawky running through the yard, her legs and arms like toothpicks. Not that I was any different. Both of us were long-limbed skinny things, about the same height, each with straw-colored hair and eyes as blue as the sky above our heads. Some folks mistook us for twins, but my sister always corrected them, huffing and puffing that she was older than me—one year and eleven months, to be precise. We didn’t look much like our parents, especially since they both had dark hair, but Mama said that’d change soon enough. She guaranteed our hair would darken over time, though I had my doubts.
Up at the dog lot, we stopped to assess the situation. My sister was more the animal lover than me, doting on any creature that happened to cross our paths—the baby bird that fell from its nest, the rabbit our cat half-killed the previous summer, or a turtle we found near the creek. As we stared at the dog, I asked her if she thought it had rabies.
“Nah,” she answered. “Poor thing’s just scared.”
Considering he ran behind the house away from us, whimpering, she was probably right. The dog was fat for a stray. His fur was black, though he had some brown splotches here and there, mostly on his face and paws. He’d come out, only to retreat behind the house again. I worried that the scuffed-up spot on his backside might have been mange. My sister started sweet-talking him, but it didn’t do any good. He maintained his distance, keeping his tail tucked between his legs. When my sister leaned over the fence, holding her hand out, I warned her that he might bite.
“He ain’t gonna bite me,” she scoffed. “Come here boy, c’mon.”
She managed to get him close enough to sniff her fingers through the fence, but he kept backing off. He’d go inside the doghouse, come out and circle it, then approach us again, right before backing away. Frantic and full of energy, he couldn’t seem to sit still. He wagged his tail some, like he wanted to play but wasn’t quite sure if we could be trusted. My sister decided to try a new tactic. She walked over to the part of the fence that wasn’t attached to a post, pulling it back as far as she could. “Here, hold it open,” she told me. “I’ll scare him out.”
I did my part, watching my sister make her way to the back of the pen. She picked up a stick and beat it along the fence, yelling the whole time. “Go on, get! Get outta here!” That stupid dog didn’t get, though. He ran inside the doghouse to hide from all the noise.
“I don’t know,” my sister said, staring down at our house, worried. We didn’t know what Daddy would do if we didn’t succeed. He was as unpredictable as a hurricane, and sometimes just as destructive. He could be nice and sweet, and though he was always sorry the next day, we didn’t know what he might do when he had too much to drink. He yelled at our mama about all kinds of stuff, and sometimes he hit her too, all while we watched, the two of us lined up like dolls, unable to stop him. Unable to move at all.
“Should we try to pull him out?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she answered, grabbing the fence with both hands. She pulled it back and forth, nervously. “Yeah, I’m going in.”
I watched her pull the fence down and hop over. She took a hesitant step towards the doghouse, bending down towards the entrance. The dog watched her the whole time. She tried more sweet talk, but he wouldn’t budge. If only that damned mutt hadn’t been so stubborn. She got closer, reaching out with one hand, but the dog suddenly snapped at her. She jumped back, scared. “Be careful,” I warned.
She shot me her special fed-up look before walking around to the back of the doghouse, giving it a good hard kick. She kicked it over and over again, making such a racket the dog finally jumped out. “Go on, get outta here!” my sister yelled, approaching him. When the stupid thing started growling, she jumped back over the fence to join me. At least she’d gotten it out of the doghouse.
Just then, we heard the screen door creak open. There Daddy was on the porch, rifle in hand. “Get down here right now!” he yelled. We did as we were told, knowing better than to argue. As we got up on the porch, Daddy stepped down. We kept our eyes on him, praying he wouldn’t do it. “I told you,” he said quietly. “I warned you both.” After taking a few more steps, he held the rifle up and took aim. Knowing it was too late, we turned away, covering our ears.
But nothing could muffle the sound of his gun exploding when he pulled the trigger. I felt an intense rupture of pain, like a deep, jagged fissure opening inside my head, splitting it in two–before and after. The first thing I saw when I turned around was Daddy lowering his rifle to the ground. He’d done what he said he would do.
My sister and I looked past him to see the dog stumbling around in circles, yelping desperately as some smooth, glistening organ slipped out from the gaping wound. The dog twisted its head back, sniffing at the newly formed hole in its side, at the things falling out. There was a surprising lack of blood. For such a fatal wound, one would expect more blood.
My sister made a strange hiccup noise and ran into the house. I wanted to follow her, to run to my room and bury my head beneath the pillow, shutting out the echo of that single gunshot, but I couldn’t. With the sound of my father’s boots stomping across the porch, I knew the world would go on like nothing had changed. He opened the screen door. “It was just a mutt,” he said, leaving me alone.
As I walked up through the yard, I watched as more of the dog’s innards came tumbling out, trailing after it. I felt so dizzy, like the world had been turned upside down, knocking me loose.
By the time I got up there, the poor thing was losing steam. Panting, each breath came slower than the one before. I knew it wouldn’t be much longer. After dragging itself around in one more slow, tortuous circle, it slumped over, giving up at last. With one eye to Heaven, its head rested against the ground. I couldn’t stand what I was witnessing but couldn’t force myself to look away. I knew I had to stay with that dog until the end. I bent down on my knees and gripped the fence. For a moment, its eye shifted over and took me in—the last living thing it would ever see. When that eye returned to the sky, I imagine it saw something else, something beyond Heaven and Hell.
And then it was over.
With a trembling hand, I reached out to make sure, rubbing its snout. I closed my eyes and reached further, feeling the warm, sticky blood around the wound. Startled, I pulled my hand back and jumped up. I stared at the black blood covering my fingertips, mesmerized. After taking a deep breath, I rubbed it across my white shirt. I had never been so scared in my life. I looked down at our red house and could have sworn I saw my father’s shadow in the window, watching me. He’d done this awful thing, but it was more than that. Terrified, I realized I didn’t know him at all, this man called Daddy.
Something new was born inside me that day—something warm and slick like an organ, filled with the darkest desire. I clenched my fists together, wishing I could make him pay for all the things he’d ever done—to me, my sister, my mother, and the dog. I wanted to march down to the house and take the gun from the cabinet, lifting it up in his direction while watching him squirm. But I knew it wasn’t possible. I wasn’t big enough to handle that gun, and I didn’t feel sure I was ready to pull the trigger.
Not yet, anyway.
Cameron L. Mitchell grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Coffin Bell Journal, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel.