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Fiction Coming of Age Sad

“Grow up, kids” Mom said, her soapy hands on her hips. She had been doing dishes in the stained avocado green sink. “Mary, quit hassling your brother. Shawn, quit making fun of her hair. It’s perfectly lovely the way it is.” 

I ran my fingers through my shoulder length blonde hair. Mom continued, “Now both of you kids out of the kitchen before I make you finish the dishes.” She turned back to the sink, her apron strings flapping behind her.

We scattered out of the kitchen. Shawn went to his room in the basement with a stack of comic bookies. And I changed into a tank top and shorts, then went outside with our border collie Bill. He ran in circles around me as I walked, pausing to playfully nip at my shirt.

Bill was the perfect dog for me. We got him as a puppy when I was 8 and now he was 8 and I was 16. He liked to have adventures, just like me. If there was a swamp that needed investigating, he would find little spotted frogs and turtles for me to take pictures of with Dad’s old camera. And just like me, he liked to sled in the winter, make clubhouses out of pine branches in the spring, go to the lake in the summer, and jump in leaf piles in the fall. Whenever I could, I’d take a book out to the old orchard with its gnarled apple trees and grape arbors and sit against a tree and read for hours with Bill keeping lookout. This was Bill’s favorite thing in the world. I could tell by the way he watched me with his pale blue eyes.

“I can’t find Bill,” I said to Mom one warm summer night while she made sandwiches for the next day’s lunches. “I looked in the garage, the shed, the orchard, and the corn fields and I can’t find him anywhere. I’m really worried.” I was fiddling with the hem of my shirt, a bad habit I’d had since childhood that only came out when I was feeling stressed.

“Did you check under the deck? Sometimes he goes under there to cool off.” Mom slapped mustard onto some of her sturdy homemade bread, then covered it with some slices of bologna. None of us really liked bologna, but it was the cheapest, so that’s what we had. Shawn got pickle relish on his. Gross.

Of course. Sometimes I hid out with him under the deck to hide from Mom when she was on a tear about us kids doing chores. But Bill wasn’t there either.

“I’m sure he’ll come back tomorrow, kiddo. Don’t worry, Bill can take care of himself,” Mom said. I went to sleep that night curled around the pillow in my bed where Bill usually slept. I had a knot in my stomach and it took a long time to get to sleep.

Bill didn’t come back the next day or the day after that. Mom and Shawn had told me I was being silly, but by the third day, they were finally upset. Mostly we all thought of Bill as my dog, but everyone loved him. “I think we need to mount a search and rescue operation,” Mom said. Shawn took his bike and went to ride around to the neighbors’ houses. There weren’t many of them since we lived in the middle of farm country. And Mom and I went to look in the woods around our corn fields, fallow for years now, since Dad passed.

“Bill! Billlll!” I yelled. Mom and I separated and I took the west side of the forest. I whistled a long, high pitched note, one Bill always came to no matter where he was. I pressed on through the forest, alternating yelling and whistling as it began to get dark. I was crying freely. Something bad had to have happened if Bill wasn’t coming to me.

Then I heard a faint whimpering, an awful, injured sound. I knew it was Bill.

The trap had caught Bill on his right leg on his haunch about six inches up from his paw. There was dried blood everywhere. The leg looked nearly severed. I ran to him and hugged him gently, tears pouring. He yelped. 

“Mom!” I screamed. “Help me!” No response. She must have been deep in the forest on the other end.

Bill looked at me with love and trust in his eyes. I took the sides of the trap in my hands and tried to pull them apart. I managed to budge them a little, but couldn’t hold them and they snapped back shut with a horrible sound from Bill. I fished out my phone. I barely had a signal. I texted our family group, praying they would see it. I wrote, “Found Bill in a trap can’t get him out. Help! In the pines almost to the Brown’s.” I sat next to Bill and cradled his head in my lap and petted his ears and neck. His tail wagged just a little. 

“On my way,” Shawn texted. “Be right there,” Mom wrote. Soon they crashed through the underbrush at a jog. 

“Oh Jesus, oh shit, oh no,” Mom burst out, her hands at her mouth. She had pine needles sticking out of her shirt and her face was wild.

“Help me get him out!” I shouted. Shawn bent over Bill and looked at the large teeth of the trap that bit into Bill’s leg. 

“Let’s each take a side,” Shawn said. “Mom, you pull him out when we get the sides down enough.” Shawn’s face was sweaty in the summer heat.

“Ok, I’ve got him,” Mom said. She pulled Bill free from the wicked teeth and dragged him a few feet from the trap. In his pain, Bill snapped at her. Then he lay still, his eyes closed. I dropped my side of the trap and rushed to him. He seemed to have passed out. His breathing was shallow and his leg stuck away from his body at a sickening angle. It was bleeding copiously. Shawn pulled a bandana from his pocket, rolled it up, and tied it around the top of Bill’s leg to make a tourniquet. 

“We have to get him to the vet. Mom, you call and make sure they will still be open. Shawn, can you carry Bill to the car?” 

Without a word, Shawn picked up Bill and began to stride out of the forest. 

Mom and I followed, Mom looking for the vet’s number on her phone. “Got it!” she said as she tripped over a fallen limb and nearly face planted. She had just caught the vet as she was leaving for the day, but she agreed to wait the 30 minutes it would take for us to get there.

When Mom and I got back to the house, Shawn had just finished loading Bill into the minivan. Mom ran in to get her purse while I strapped in. Shawn got in the driver’s seat. Since he had gotten his license the previous summer, he had become the unofficial family chauffeur. I got in the backseat and put my hand on Bill’s head. He stirred a little at my touch but then lay still. 

The closest vet’s office was in Mesick, a 30 minute drive away. I kept up a running commentary about what a good boy Bill was and how much I loved him and would do everything I could to make him better. 

The vet, Dr. Arnett, met us at the door. “Bring him right in here,” she said, and Shawn brought him into a back room filled with machines and equipment. He put Bill on a silver operating table and stood back. Dr. Arnett examined the leg quickly. “I need to operate right away. He’s lost a lot of blood and to be honest…” She paused. “To be honest, honey, this dog may not make it. Or he might end up with a stump if I can’t save the leg. It’s been nearly severed for days so I may not be able to reattach it.”

“All my staff had to go home,” she went on. “I’m going to need one of you to help out while I do this operation. I’ll show you what to do.” After a quick glance at my Mom and Shawn, they walked back to the waiting room. “Glove up,” Dr. Arnett said, as she snapped hers on. Bill was lying on a silver table, his breathing slow, eyes closed.

“Hi buddy,” I said, smoothing the soft fur on Bill’s head. “It’s me. I’m right here with you, baby. I won’t ever let you go.” I started to cry big hacking sobs.

“You need to focus, or go get your brother,” Dr. Arnett said. She had an electric trimmer out and was shaving the fur around the wound. She then cleaned it with some antiseptic wipes. She removed Shawn’s bandana and put on a tourniquet. 

“No, I got it,” I said. I wiped my eyes and bit my lip hard. “What do I do?”

“You can hand me instruments and keep an eye on his vitals.” She showed me the machines Bill was hooked up and what the readouts meant. “Ok, if you’re ready. I’m going to get an IV started and I put the sleepy drugs and pain meds in there. Then we’ll start.” 

“I can’t save this leg,” Dr. Arnett said after a thorough examination of the leg. Her hands and smock were covered in blood. “It’s going to have to come off. “Find me a bone saw,” she said. “It should be over there.” She gestured with an elbow.

The grinding noise of the bone saw as it bit through what was left of Bill’s leg haunts me. I watched as half of Bill’s leg fell from his body. He would never be whole again. 

Dr. Arnett had left flaps of skin around the wound and she started to stitch these up. There were so many stitches. I tried not to look as I handed her the scissors and she cut off the excess skin. 

One of the machines started to emit a high pitched sound. I glanced at it wildly and saw that Bill’s heart rate and blood pressure had dropped. “Oh my God,” I said hysterically. “He’s dying!”

Bill’s vitals continued to drop while Dr. Arnett flew into action. She grabbed a syringe from the cart and inserted it into the IV. After a horrible minute, Bill’s vitals started getting better and after 10 minutes were close to normal. But now he was waking up. “Hold him down,” Dr. Arnett said. I pulled myself up onto the table and half laid on Bill, holding him tight. He growled low in his throat but stopped struggling. I thought he must trust that I knew the right thing to do for him.

Dr. Arnett finished her stitching, sat back in her chair, and arched her back. Her white lab coat was spotted with Bill’s blood. She said, “He’s all set now. We’ll take stitches out in a few weeks. In the meantime, watch him and don’t let him wander or chew on the stitches. You’ll have to carry him outside to go to the bathroom-- it’ll be a while before he learns how to walk again. I’ll go get him a cone.” 

Mom and Shawn were in the waiting room when I came out carrying Bill. “Oh, thank God,” Mom said, and Shawn leaned over and gave Bill’s head a pat. “Good to see you, buddy,” he said in the gruff way that reminded me so much of Dad. I carefully handed Bill to Shawn, who carried him out to the car.

“He’s not out of the woods,” I said. “His body has a lot of healing to do, and he has to be willing to do it. But for now, let’s get him home so we can spoil him rotten.” I put Bill on the backseat and climbed into the other seat. I put my head on his head and my hair fell around his face. I didn’t think Bill liked this move much, but he always let me do it. I kissed his sweet head and said, “I love you little BillyWillyKins.”

Bill didn’t bounce back after the stitches came out. He was listless and had lost all of his zest and adventurousness. After a while, he could hop along ok, but he fell often and he hadn’t been more than six feet off of the porch. He did his business and came back into the house with his tail low. He seemed indifferent when I sat on the floor next to him and petted him. The vet was not encouraging. “Sad to say, sometimes older dogs don’t recover from this kind of surgery. If he doesn’t perk up and start eating again. Otherwise…” she trailed off. “Well, prepare for the worst and we’ll hope for the best.”

I tried to get Bill to come with me to the orchard, but he stubbornly refused to move even for his favorite dish, chicken livers. He continued to lie on his ratty old bed, his eyes open and staring, instead of coming with me. Finally I gave up trying to cajole him. I loaded him into an old red wagon and pulled him up the hill to the orchard. I looked back and saw Bill lift his head check things out. His nose was twitching with the good, outdoorsy smells.

We got to our favorite tree. I laid Bill near it and sat down next to him. He put his head on my leg, just as he always did. He heaved a great sigh. I don’t know how, but I knew Bill was dying; my best buddy was leaving me. I rubbed his ears and his neck like I knew he loved as his breathing became more and more shallow until it stopped altogether. I stopped breathing too. 

“Oh Bill, please don’t leave me, my sweet boy. I need you so much. Please be ok,” I wailed, my words punctuated by heaving sobs. Bill took another breath. And another. “Bill! Can you hear me? Come back to me, baby. Come back!” Another breath. “That’s it,” I said, my own breathing labored. Another breath, this one with a rattle in the middle. Another breath, another rattle. And then silence. Bill stopped breathing. He did not start again.

We buried him there, under the bent apple tree, my best friend, my heart. I still see him everywhere, see him run through the trees, see him jump onto my bed, see him waiting for me at the end of the driveway when I got home from school. But I would never really see him again.

April 01, 2022 13:47

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