Burying the Dog
MARIE DIDN’T WANT KYLE to bury the dog. She said this in the hallway of the hospital, her fists at her sides like she was holding John Henry hammers. Her voice was low but sharp, cutting through the beeps and buzzes of the rooms around them. Their daughter was in the room to the right. She wanted him to take it into the woods and leave it, to let the birds and the foxes and even the bears pick the dog’s eyes and organs out, to have maggots fill in the cavities made by the scavengers, to have the bones—when they were the only thing left—covered by the coming autumn’s leaves. To be ripped apart. To be forgotten.
Kyle had nodded at this, dumbly, the twenty-two still in his hand after shooting the dog he’d had for the last ten years. He wasn’t hearing her, not at all. Somewhere behind his ears there was a buzzing that he couldn’t quite place. He was thinking about the dog’s eyes, looking up at him from the sit Kyle didn’t even have to ask for. Kyle thought of the whistle whine of the dog’s breathing. He thought of the wire hair scratching against and inside the barrel of the gun as he leveled it flush against the skull. Kyle thought of the pop.
The dog, in what could’ve only been something wrought by old age, attacked their six-month-old. Kyle had been the one to hear their child’s cry, the sound of the dog’s nails scratching and clicking against the linoleum, more baby cries. He had been on his way back from the bathroom, leaving the baby in the little bouncy seat she always sat in. He saw the cookie crumbs on the ground mixed with blood, and before he knew it he’d lifted the dog by the scruff and thrown it across the room. It bounced off the kitchen table and hit the door that led to the back porch with a sound like dropping a flour sack from height. Kyle moved between the two and had his phone out even before looking to see what had happened.
At the hospital, through tears, Marie had told Kyle that he needed to get rid of the dog. She would not come home to the house with that mutt, that mongrel, sharing the same space. It was to never set foot anywhere around her again. Marie told him to shoot it dead and leave it for the forest. It didn’t matter that the dog had spent many nights while Kyle was overseas curled up at the foot of their bed, watching over Marie. It didn’t matter that the dog had once scared a bear away. What mattered was that it had gone after their baby, her baby, the one they had tried years for. Their little eleventh-hour miracle, her mother had called the child.
KYLE HAD PUT THE DOG into a wheelbarrow with a shovel. She would never know, he told himself as he pushed forward into the woods. He stared straight ahead, his body moving automatically. He’d grown up here; he knew these trees. He knew every rock and root and rabbit hole. He knew how many steps it took to get forgotten. She never came back here, though—Kyle could count the number of times Marie had ventured beyond the fence line during their marriage. She wouldn’t know what he did. But what if she did? Would she come and check? Would she make him take her to the spot to look at the body? Kyle didn’t know, and he pushed on, a mile, two, then three into the woods.
At a place where an oak had, over time, become one with another smaller oak, Kyle stopped. His arms ached, and he wanted desperately to look down and see his dog, his Nugget, alive and well in the barrow, waiting for him to pick up a stick and throw it. When he looked down, though, he saw the clouded eyes, the crusted-over hole between them, a few flies beginning to sense a meal. Kyle slid his arms under the dog and lifted it, so seemingly light now, before carrying it to the base of the trees and setting it down. They’d come here before, many times. When Kyle’s father had taken to hitting his mother, they came here, listening to the nearby stream and hoping, hoping, hoping that when they came back, his mother would still be the one to pop her head in at the end of the night to wish him sweet dreams.
Kyle set the dog in a V of grass between two roots and stepped back—it might’ve been asleep, and probably had been at some point in that very spot. He wondered what Marie was doing. He wondered if his daughter was out of surgery. He wondered what she’d look like in a week, a year, a decade. In the back of his throat, a ball started to form, and Kyle tried to swallow it away.
After a few minutes standing and staring at the bark above where Nugget lay, Kyle picked up the shovel. He set the tip in the grass near the dog’s head and held it there. Marie was only speaking in anger, he told himself, she didn’t mean that. She’d realize what she said after. She had to. Kyle pushed the blade into the dirt and pushed it further down with the heel of his boot. He had to do this. He owed it to Nugget.
The pile of dirt grew, and with every shovel he tossed to the side, the weight of Marie’s words grew on him. He wouldn’t put it past her to come look. She’d make him. She watched him burn the letters from ex-girlfriends in front of her. As a teen she had locked her own parents in their bedroom until they agreed to let her go on a trip with her friends.
When he had a hole two feet deep and just as long, he stopped. He set the shovel down and sat on the ground. He could smell Nugget, the wet dog smell that was there no matter how many baths he got mixing with the tang of blood, death. Kyle sniffed, rubbed at his nose and eyes with the back of his hand, and tried to swallow again. Another ten minutes passed. He couldn’t force himself to stand and finish the job, but he couldn’t leave. He knew what Marie meant—he didn’t want to step back into the house now, either. He could see Nugget’s bed in the living room, the cardboard box of toys near the stairs, the metal bowls that the dog had had since it was a pup.
Another ten minutes passed. Kyle had stood and shoveled a few loads of dirt back into the hole before taking them right back out. The pile rose and fell like it was breathing. More flies had begun to gather around the dog’s eyes. He pulled out his phone to see that Marie had not called or texted. Kyle had the handle of the shovel in his hand and he spun it slowly, the blade twisting in the grass at his feet. The longer he stood here, he realized, the harder it would be.
Looking down at Nugget one more time, Kyle nodded. This wasn’t how he’d imagined this end, but it would have to do. Maybe, he thought as he wheeled the shovel back through the woods, maybe one of the animals would knock the body in, would give him a proper burial.
Sam Slaughter is the author of the chapbook When You Cross That Line and the story collection God in Neon. He lives in the New York City area, where he is a spirits writer for The Manual.
Sam can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and @slaughterwrites.