The Yellow Bullet

Submitted into Contest #252 in response to: Write about a character who struggles to do the right thing. ... view prompt


American Fiction Sad

The man’s dog was dying. 

It had been lying in the pink dog bed in the corner for five days. The vet had uttered his diagnosis with quiet finality: liver failure. 

The dog was only supposed to have two weeks to live, but was still managing to get up long enough to dust off the fleas and sunbathe in the backyard after two weeks and five days.

She was a good girl.

A sleek, slender yellow lab with long, twiggy legs, in better days, she could run like an antelope–down forest trails, across open fields–like when he used to take her to the softball field of the local church. The moment he let her off the leash, she became a tawny blur of legs shooting across the summer grass. He would grin as he chucked the well-worn tennis ball, watching the yellow bullet intercept the neon green mortar just before it hit the ground. A natural wide receiver.

He looked at her now, and could barely believe she was the same dog. The skin a sallow, bleached color–more tan than yellow. The ridgeline of her back clearly visible. The skin stretched over the ribcage, drum-tight. All of it tapering off into a thin set of hindquarters that made her look like a racing dog, even though she was supposed to be a fat, healthy yellow lab. She was the same sweet, meek dog, but during the last few days, she had grown meeker, almost mournful, bearing up under her load of suffering with more grace and acceptance than most human beings.

She had been his sole, unwavering companion for the past twelve years. A friend who was never false. Life had taken some nasty turns. Leading hunting expeditions in Maine, before a drug relapse left him sprawled out on a train station bench, homeless. Then a 12-month stint at a rehabilitation center in the city. Then renting the shed–the shed–of a man for whom he worked painting chicken coops for eight dollars an hour–far below the state minimum wage. But again, it was understandable, considering renting a shed was probably (definitely) illegal and he would be duly kicked out at the first sign of trouble. It was a case of beggars not being choosers. 

He stared at the vertical planking of the frowsy little shed and took in the musty odors as if for the last time. Today was the day. Had to be. He had already spent all the unemployment benefits–a fixed stipend of $300 per week–that he had saved up before getting the job. Just to eat, the dog required a medicine the vet prescribed–at the man’s insistence–to keep her from throwing up everything in her stomach. $500 for a week’s worth of capsules. Thankfully, the dog was drinking water like an Afghan camel. He would set down the stainless steel drinking bowl with a tinny clank and the dog would lap at the water for a straight minute until she finally raised her head, jowls dripping and tail swinging weakly.

Just a few hours ago he had forced some yogurt down her throat so she would have something to keep her alive. There was nothing in the shed for her to eat. He had spent all the money he could spare, and didn't have any left over for food. The monthly $150 rent was coming up. He had tried to whittle it down to something humane, but when his landlord replied “If you don’t like it, you can go look for an alley somewhere”, he shut up real quick. To cope with current events, he had himself gone without food. His “landlord”, a raisin-faced, chain-smoking farmhand in his late 60s, only let him inside to eat breakfast: coffee, two scrambled eggs and a piece of toast scraped with butter.

He didn’t even have the money to put her down. 

His eyes wandered from the bed where she was sleeping–a curled-up skeleton–to the snub-nosed .38 Special sitting on the dusty workbench. Sitting among the wrenches and spark plugs and jugs of weed killer, as if they were all getting along just fine. The gun shone with a dull gleam in the jaundiced light of the shed’s single light bulb. The irony was almost too much for him to bear. 

Ten years ago, he returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq. He had spent three weeks of his tour in Fallujah, breaking down doors and clearing living rooms in house-to-house combat. He thought enlisting in the marines would be fun. Give him a chance to prove himself. While he may have accomplished something on the second score, there was no fun to be found in Fallujah. Late into his deployment, he was riding in the back of a Humvee, the first in a convoy transporting soldiers to the next set of houses that needed clearing, when an IED went off. He survived, but his two best friends–the driver and the gunner–suffered a painful, protracted death by incineration. Or maybe it was asphyxiation. They had been screaming before they passed out from the smoke. 

He was not quite the same after that. The rest of the tour went by in a steady blur lit up by brief flashes of combat. He killed, reloaded, and repeated the process until the doped-up Iraqi insurgents were no more than moving flesh-bags to him. The sight of blood and butchered bodies became as banal as the sight of excrement: nasty, but just a part of doing business. 

He shot, killed, reloaded and repeated for nine grueling months. The 12-year-old kid who was raised in a baptist family and didn't know how to talk to girls would, as a 20-year-old marine in Fallujah, spend his nights snorting coke and binge-watching videos that would have made his mother cry if she were there to see it. Back then, just about anything would do to take his mind somewhere else than the battlefield, somewhere where children were not handed RPGs and told to fire and women in black burkas did not detonate themselves in the middle of a crowded street. 

He had arrived home to his dog. 

One night, as he had done many nights before, he took his .38 revolver from its drawer with a single round loaded in the chamber. He held his thumb down on the cylinder release: the cylinder popped out of alignment with the muzzle. He gazed at the pretty gold finish on the flat of the bullet. Popped the cylinder back in with a click. Popped it out again. Popped it back in. 

He remembered thinking, I’m gonna do it. Today’s the day I’m gonna do it. His heart rate had doubled in the span of five seconds. A cold feeling came over him then, as if a void had opened up beneath his feet.

It would be a straight shot to the brain; the pain wouldn’t even have time to register. He flicked the safety tab off, and cocked the hammer with his thumb. Pressed the cold metal against the bottom of his jaw. 

At the sliding screen door, a scratch.

A cool breeze wafted in, and then a whimper. He paused. Set the gun on the coffee table. Walked over to the screen door and slid it open. The dog’s claws clicked madly on the hardwood floor as she scrambled inside and nearly bowled him over trying to lick his face. She was panting like a maniac and grinning her big, tongue-lolling grin. He had left her in the backyard while he ran a quick twenty-minute errand, but to her it must have felt like hours. 

He smiled despite himself as he stroked her behind her velvety ears. 

He remembered thinking, Heck, I’ll do it tomorrow. He never did.

He believed God had sent him the dog to save him. Why God would allow him to spend nine months in Iraq in the first place, he didn’t know. But he knew that the dog being there, at the screen door, at 8:12pm on the night of September 12, 2005, was no coincidence. He knew. 

Which was why he could not bear to do what he was about to do. 

Some logical part of his mind told him it was the best thing he could do. He had snorted plenty of coke in his time, but he still had enough gray matter to know that draining his bank account on a dying dog–and at the risk of losing his shed–was not an option. More medicine would only delay the inevitable. Plus, the poor dog could barely pee without whimpering in pain. She looked as if she had spent a month in Ravensbruck. Killing it–he refused to think of the dog as a “her”–was the right thing to do. There was no reason not to do it, except perhaps to spare himself the pain, at least for another day. To spare himself the pain of killing something he loved. This wasn’t like taking out a suicide bomber. But it was her suffering weighed against his, and he decided he could not deny her the mercy of a quick, painless death. That bullet he had saved for himself had never really left the equation; it was just waiting for the right moment.

“Comeon Shelly,” he said. His voice shook. “Let’s go out for a peepee.”

He stepped out into the bare, late winter chill. They’d had a heat spell for the past couple of days, but it seemed, for the present, winter would have its way. 

He had started going to church again, at the urging of his neighbor, who spent eight years as a missionary in Japan. He was grateful. He had someone to take his sorrow to besides himself. Of course, the missionary wanted him to talk to God, but he just wasn’t ready for that quite yet. Or so he told himself. Maybe he would dust off the Bible under his cot. Open up to the Gospel of John, as the missionary had suggested. 

It will tell you everything, he had said. Everything you’ll ever need to know. It’s a beautiful book.

But that would be later. 

The dog got up on shaky legs and followed him out the door, tail hanging limp, head inclined hopefully. He petted her on the head; all he felt were bony ridges. 

The revolver felt like a bar of lead in his hands. Tears streaming down his face, he flicked the safety off. 

May 31, 2024 16:08

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12:28 Jun 15, 2024

Hi Ben! I was assigned your story in Reedsy's critique circle and wanted to leave my thoughts on it. You took such a unique angle with this. I love how the dog was a touchpoint for the man's life stories. It's so interesting how the dog saved the man and now the man is grappling with what it means to "save" the dog. Those complex dynamics in the story really kept me reading. Happy writing!


Ben LeBlanc
19:53 Jun 17, 2024

Thanks for the feedback!


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