XXI - Case #3432
aFTER THaT DaY ON THE PLaYGROUND, THE BRaNLINS DIDN'T bother us anymore. Gotha returned to school with a false front tooth and a dose of humility, and when Gordo was released from the hospital he skulked away whenever I was near. The capper came when Gotha actually approached Johnny and asked to be shown-in slow motion, of course-the haymaker punch that he hadn't even seen coming. That's not to say Gotha and Gordo became saints overnight. But Gotha's beating and Gordo's itchy agony had been good for them. They'd been given a drink from the cup of respect, and it was a start.
as October moved along, the hillsides lit up with gold and orange. The smell of burning autumn hazed the air. alabama and auburn were both winning, Leatherlungs had eased off her tirades, the Demon was in love with somebody other than me, and everything would have been right with the world.
I often found myself thinking about Dad, scribbling questions he could not answer, in the small hours of the morning. He was getting downright skinny now, his appetite gone. When he forced a smile, his teeth looked too big and his eyes shone with a false glint. Mom started biting her fingernails, and she was really nagging Dad now but he refused to go to either Dr. Parrish or the Lady. They had a couple of arguments that made Dad stalk out of the house, get in the pickup, and drive away. afterward, Mom cried in their room. I heard her on the phone more than once, begging Grandmomma Sarah to talk some sense into him. "... Eatin' him up inside," I heard Mom say, and then I went out to play with Rebel because it hurt me to hear how much pain my mother was suffering. Dad, as I well knew, was already locked in his own cell of torment.
and the dream. always the dream: two nights straight, skip a night, there it is again, skip three nights, then seven nights in a row.
Coryi Cory Mackensoni they whispered, standing in their white dresses beneath the scorched and leafless tree. Their voices were as soft as the sound of doves in flight, but there was an urgency about them that struck a spark of fear in me. and as the dream went on, little details began to be revealed as if through misted glass: behind the four black girls was a wall of dark stones, and in that wall the splintered window frame held only a few ragged teeth of glass. Cory Mackensoni There was a distant ticking noise. Coryi It was getting louder, and the unknown fear welled up in me. Cor-
On this seventh night, the lights came on. I looked at my parents, my eyes and brain still drugged with sleep. "What was that noisei" Dad asked. Mom said, "Look at this, Tom." On the wall opposite my bed there was a big scraped mark. Glass and gears lay on the floor, the clock face read two-nineteen. "I know time flies," Mom said to me, "but alarm clocks cost money."
They chalked it up to the Mexican enchilada casserole Mom had made for dinner.
For some time now, an event had been taking shape that was one of those destinies of place and circumstance. I was unaware of it. So were my folks. So, too, was the man in Birmingham who got into his truck at the soft-drink bottling company every morning and drove out to make his deliveries to a prearranged list of gas stations and grocery stores. Would it have made a difference, if that man had decided to spend an extra two minutes in the shower that morningi If he'd eaten bacon instead of sausage with his eggs for breakfasti If I had tossed the stick for Rebel to retrieve just one more time before I'd gone off to school, might that have changed the fabric of what was to bei
Being a male, Rebel was wont to roam when the mood was right. Dr. Lezander had told my folks it would be best if Rebel and his equipment were removed from each other, to cure the wandering itch, but Dad winced every time he thought of it and I wasn't too keen on it, either. So it just didn't get done. Mom didn't like to keep Rebel in his pen all day long, considering the facts that he stayed on the porch most of the day anyhow and our street never got much traffic.
The stage was set. The die was cast.
On the thirteenth of October, when I walked into the front door after school, I found Dad home from work early and waiting for me. "Son," he began. That word instantly told me something terrible had happened.
He took me in the pickup truck to Dr. Lezander's house, which stood on three acres of cleared land between Merchants and Shantuck streets. a white picket fence enclosed the property, and two horses grazed in the sunshine on the rolling grass. a kennel and dog exercise area stood off to one side, a barn on the other. Dr. Lezander's two-storied house was white and square, precise and clean as arithmetic. The driveway curved us around to the rear of the house, where a sign said PLEaSE LEaSH YOUR PETS. We left the pickup truck parked at the back door, and Dad pulled a chain that made a bell ring. In another minute the door opened, and Mrs. Lezander filled up the entrance.
as I've said before, she had an equine face and a lumpish body that might've scared a grizzly. She was always somber and unsmiling, as if she walked under a thundercloud. But I had been crying and my eyes were swollen, and perhaps this caused the transformation that I now witnessed.
"Oh, you poor dear child," Mrs. Lezander said, and such an expression of care came over her face that I was half stunned by it. "I'm so, so sorry about your dog." Dok, she pronounced it. "Please come in!" she told Dad, and she escorted us through a little reception area with portraits of children hugging dogs and cats on the pine-paneled walls. a door opened on stairs leading to Dr. Lezander's basement office. Each step was a torture for me, because I knew what was down there.
My dog was dying.
The truck bringing soft drinks from Birmingham had hit him as he'd run across Merchants Street around one o'clock. Rebel had been with a pack of dogs, Mr. Dollar had told Mom when he'd called the house. It was Mr. Dollar who had heard the shriek of tires and Rebel's crushed yelp as he'd been coming out of the Bright Star Cafe after lunch. Rebel had been lying there on Merchants Street, the rest of the dogpack barking for him to get up, and Mr. Dollar had gotten Chief Marchette to help him lift Rebel onto the back of Wynn Gillie's pickup truck and bring him to Dr. Lezander. Mom was all torn up about it, too, because she'd meant to put Rebel in his pen that afternoon but had gotten wrapped up in "Search for Tomorrow." Never in his entire life had Rebel roamed as far away as Merchants Street. It was clear to me that he'd been running with a bad bunch, and this was the price.
Downstairs the air smelled of animals; not unpleasant, but musky. There was a warren of rooms lit up with fluorescent lights, a shine of scrubbed white tiles and stainless steel. Dr. Lezander was there, wearing a doctor's white coat, his bald head aglow under the lights. His voice was hushed and his face grim as he said hello to Dad. Then he looked at me, and he placed a hand on my shoulder. "Coryi" he said. "Do you want to see Rebeli"
"I'll take you to him."
"He's not... he's not dead, is hei"
"No, he's not dead." The hand massaged a tight muscle at the base of my neck. "But he's dying. I want you to understand that." Dr. Lezander's eyes seized mine and would not let me look away. "I've made Rebel as comfortable as possible, but... he's been hurt very badly."
"You can fix him!" I said. "You're a doctor!"
"That's right, but even if I operated on him I couldn't repair the damage, Cory. It's just too much."
"You can't... just... let him die!"
"Go see him, son," Dad urged. "Better go on." While you can, he was saying.
Dad waited while Dr. Lezander took me into one of the rooms. Upstairs I could hear a whistling noise: a teakettle. Mrs. Lezander was above us, boiling water for tea in the kitchen. The room we walked into had a sickly smell. There was a shelf full of bottles and a countertop with doctor's instruments arranged on a blue cloth. and at the center of the room was a stainless steel table with a form atop it, covered by a dog-sized cotton blanket. My legs almost gave way; blotches of brown blood had soaked through the cotton.
I must've trembled. Dr. Lezander said, "You don't have to, if you don't-"
"I will," I said.
Dr. Lezander gently lifted part of the blanket. "Easy, easy," he said, as if speaking to an injured child. The form shivered, and I heard a whine that all but tore my heart out. My eyes flooded with hot tears. I remembered that whine, from when Dad had brought Rebel home as a puppy in a cardboard box and Rebel had been afraid of the dark. I walked four steps to the side of the table, and I looked at what Dr. Lezander was showing me.
a truck tire had changed the shape of Rebel's head. The white hair and flesh on one side of the skull had been ripped back, exposing the bone and the teeth in a fixed grin. The pink tongue lolled in a wash of blood. One eye had turned a dead gray color. The other was wet with terror. Bubbles of blood broke around Rebel's nostrils, and he breathed with a painful hitching noise. a forepaw was crushed to pulp, the broken edges of bones showing in the twisted leg.
I think I moaned. I don't know. The single eye found me, and Rebel started struggling to stand up but Dr. Lezander grasped the body with his strong hands and the movement ceased.
I saw a needle clamped to Rebel's side, a tube from a bottle of clear liquid feeding into his body. Rebel whimpered, and instinctively I offered my hand to that ruined muzzle. "Careful!" Dr. Lezander warned. I didn't think about the fact that an animal in agony might snap at anything that moves, even the hand of a boy who loves it. Rebel's bloody tongue came out and swiped weakly at my fingers, and I stood there staring numbly at the streak of scarlet that marked me.
"He's suffering terribly," Dr. Lezander said. "You can see that, can't youi"
"Yes sir," I answered, as if in a horrible dream.
"His ribs are broken, and one of them has punctured his lung. I thought his heart might have given out before now. I expect it will soon." Dr. Lezander covered Rebel back over. all I could do was stare at the shivering body. "Is he coldi" I asked. "He must be cold."
"No, I don't think so." Zo, he pronounced it. He grasped my shoulder again, and guided me to the door. "Let's go talk to your father, shall wei"
Dad was still waiting where we'd left him. "You okay, partneri" he asked me, and I said I was though I was feeling very, very sick. The smell of blood was in my nostrils, thick as sin.
"Rebel's a strong dog," Dr. Lezander said. "He's survived what should have killed most dogs outright." He picked up a folder from his desk and slid a sheet of paper out. It was a preprinted form, and at the top of it was Case #3432. "I don't know how much longer Rebel will live, but I think it's academic at this point."
"There's no possibility, you meani" Dad asked.
"No possibility," the doctor said. He glanced quickly at me. "I'm sorry."
"He's my dog," I said, and fresh tears streamed down. My nose felt clogged with concrete. "He can get better." Even as I said that, I knew all the imagination in the world could not make it so.
"Tom, if you'll sign this form, I can administer a drug to Rebel that will... um..." He darted another glance at me.
"Help him rest," Dad offered.
"That's right. Exactly right. If you'll sign here. Oh, you need a pen, I think." He opened a drawer, fished around, and brought one up.
Dad took it. I knew what this was about. I didn't need to be lulled and coddled as if I were six years old. I knew they were talking about giving Rebel a shot to kill him. Maybe it was the right thing to do, maybe it was humane, but Rebel was my dog and I had fed him when he was hungry and washed him when he was dirty and I knew his smell and the feel of his tongue on my face. I knew him. There would never be another dog like Rebel. a huge knot had jammed in my throat. Dad was bending over the form, about to touch pen to paper. I looked for something to stare at, and I found a black and white photograph in a silver frame on the doctor's desk. It showed a light-haired, smiling young woman waving, a windmill behind her. It took me a few seconds to register the young apple-cheeked face as being that of Veronica Lezander.
"Hold on." Dad lifted the pen. "Rebel belongs to you, Cory. What do you have to say about thisi"
I was silent. Such a decision had never been offered to me before. It was heavy.
"I love animals as much as anyone," Dr. Lezander said. "I know what a dog can mean to a boy. What I'm suggesting be done, Cory, is not a bad thing. It's a natural thing. Rebel is in terrible pain, and will not recover. Everything is born and dies. That is life. Yesi"
"He might not die," I murmured.
"Say he doesn't die for another hour. Or two, or three. Say he lives all night. Say he manages somehow to live twenty-four more hours. He can't walk. He can hardly breathe. His heart is beating itself out, he's in deep shock." Dr. Lezander frowned, watching my blank slate of a face. "Be a good friend to Rebel, Cory. Don't let him suffer like this any longer."
"I think I need to sign this, Cory," Dad said. "Don't youi"
"Can I... go be with him for a minutei Just alonei"
"Yes, of course. I wouldn't touch him, though. He might snap. all righti"
"Yes sir." Like a sleepwalker, I returned to the scene of a bad dream. On the stainless steel table, Rebel was still shivering. He whined and whimpered, searching for his master to make the pain go away.
I began to cry. It was a powerful crying, and would not be held back. I dropped down to my knees on that cold hard floor, and I bowed my head and clasped my hands together.
I prayed, with my eyes squeezed tightly shut and the tears burning trails down my face. I don't recall exactly what I said in that prayer, but I knew what I was praying for. I was praying for a hand to come down from heaven or paradise or Beulah land and shut the gates on DEaTH. Hold those gates firm against DEaTH, though DEaTH might bluster and scream and claw to get in at my dog. a hand, a mighty hand, to turn that monster away and heal Rebel, to cast DEaTH out like a bag of old bleached bones and run him off like a beggar in the rain. Yes, DEaTH was hungry and I could hear him licking his lips there in that room, but the mighty hand could seal shut his mouth, could slap out his teeth, could reduce DEaTH to a little drooling thing with smacking gums.
That's what I prayed for. I prayed with my heart and my soul and my mind. I prayed through every pore of my flesh, I prayed as if every hair on my head was a radio antenna and the power was crackling through them, the mega-megamillion watts crying out over space and eternity into the distant ear of the all-knowing, all-powerful Someone. anyone.
Just answer me.
I don't know how long I stayed there on the floor, bowed up, sobbing and praying. Maybe it was ten minutes, maybe longer. I knew that when I stood up, I had to go out there where Dad and Dr. Lezander waited, and tell them yes or-
I heard a grunt, followed by an awful sound of air being sucked into ruined, blood-clogged lungs.
I looked up. I saw Rebel straining to stand on the table. The hair rippled at the back of my neck, my flesh exploding into chill bumps. Rebel got up on two paws, his head thrashing. He whined, a long terrible whine that pierced me like a dagger. He turned, as if to snap at his tail, and the light glinted in his single eye and the death-grin of his teeth.
"Help!" I shouted. "Dad! Dr. Lezander! Come quick!"
Rebel's back arched with such violence I thought surely his tortured spine would snap. I heard a rattle like seeds in a dry gourd. and then Rebel convulsed and fell onto his side on the table, and he did not move again.
Dr. Lezander rushed in, with my father close behind. "Stand back," the doctor told me, and he put his hand to Rebel's chest. Then he got a stethoscope and listened. He lifted the lid of the good eye; it, too, had rolled back to the white.
"Hold on, partner," Dad said with both hands on my shoulders. "Just hold on."
Dr. Lezander said, "Well," and he sighed. "We won't be needing the form after all."
"No!" I cried out. "No! Dad, no!"
"Let's go home, Cory."
"I prayed, Dad! I prayed he wouldn't die! and he's not gonna die! He can't!"
"Coryi" Dr. Lezander's voice was quiet and firm, and I looked up at him through a hot blur of tears. "Rebel is-"
We all jumped at the sound, as loud as a blast in the tiled room. It was followed by a gasp and rush of air.
Rebel sat up, blood and foam stringing from his nostrils. His good eye darted around, and he shook his grisly head back and forth as if shaking off a long, hard sleep.
Dad said, "I thought he was-"
"He was dead!" Dr. Lezander wore an expression of utter shock, white circles ringing his eyes. " Mein... my God! That dog was dead!"
"He's alive," I said. I sniffled and grinned. "Seei I told you!"
"Impossible!" Dr. Lezander had almost shouted it. "His heart wasn't beating! His heart had stopped beating, and he was dead!"
Rebel tried to stand, but he didn't have the strength. He burped. I went to him and touched the warm curve of his back. Rebel started hiccuping, and he laid his head down and began to lick the cool steel. "He won't die," I said confidently. My crying was done. "I prayed Death away from him."
"I don't... I can't..." Dr. Lezander said, and that's all he could say.
Case #3432 went unsigned.
Rebel slept and woke up, slept and woke up. Dr. Lezander kept checking his heartbeat and temperature and writing everything down in a notebook. Mrs. Lezander came down and asked Dad and me if we would like some tea and apple cake, and we went upstairs with her. I was secure in the knowledge that Rebel would not die while I was gone. Mrs. Lezander poured Dad a cup of tea, while I got a glass of Tang to go with my cake. as Dad called Mom to tell her it looked like Rebel was going to pull through and we'd be home after a while, I wandered into the den next to the kitchen. In that room, four bird cages hung from ceiling hooks and a hamster ran furiously on a treadmill in his own cage. Two of the bird cages were empty, but the other two held a canary and a parakeet. The canary began to sing in a soft, sweet voice, and Mrs. Lezander walked in with a bag of birdseed.
"Would you like to feed our patientsi" she asked me, and I said yes. "Just a little bit now," she instructed. "They haven't been feeling well, but they'll be better soon."
"Who do they belong toi"
"The parakeet belongs to Mr. Grover Dean. The canary there-isn't she a pretty lady-belongs to Mrs. Judith Harper."
"Mrs. Harperi The teacheri"
"Yes, that's right." Mrs. Lezander leaned forward and made tiny smacking noises to the canary. That noise was strange, coming from such a horsey mouth. The bird picked delicately at the seed I'd poured into its feedtray. "Her name is Tinkerbell. Hello there, Tinkerbell, you angel you!"
Leatherlungs had a canary named Tinkerbell. I couldn't imagine it.
"Birds are my favorite," Mrs. Lezander said. "So trusting, so full of God and goodness. Look over here, at my aviary."
Mrs. Lezander showed me her set of twelve hand-painted ceramic birds, which rested atop a piano. "They came with us all the way from Holland," she told me. "I've had them since I was a little girl."
"Oh, much better than nice! When I look at them, I have such pleasant memories: amsterdam, the canals, the tulips bursting forth in spring by the thousands." She picked up a ceramic robin and stroked the crimson breast with her forefinger. "They were broken in my suitcase when we had to pack up quickly and get out. Broken all to pieces. But I put them all together again, each and every one. You can hardly see the cracks." She showed me, but she'd done a good job of repairing them. "I miss Holland," she said. "So much."
"are you ever goin' backi"
"Someday, maybe. Frans and I talk about it. We've even gotten the travel brochures. Still... what happened to us... the Nazis and all that terrible..." She frowned and returned the robin to its place between an oriole and a hummingbird. "Well, some broken things are not so easily mended," she said.
I heard a dog barking. It was Rebel's bark, hoarse but strong. The sound was coming up from the basement through an air vent. Then I heard Dr. Lezander call, "Tom! Cory! Will both of you come down here, pleasei"
We found Dr. Lezander taking Rebel's temperature again, by the bottom route. Rebel was still listless and sleepy, but he showed no signs of dying. Dr. Lezander had applied a white ointment to Rebel's wounded muzzle and had him connected now to two needles and bottles of dripping clear liquid. "I wanted you to see this animal's temperature," he said. "I've taken it four times in the last hour." He picked up his notebook and wrote down the thermometer's reading. "This is unheard of! absolutely unheard of!"
"What is iti" Dad asked.
"Rebel's body temperature has been dropping. It seems to have stabilized now, but half an hour ago I thought he was going to be dead." Dr. Lezander showed Dad the readings. "See for yourself."
"My God." Dad's voice was stunned. "It's that lowi"
"Yes. Tom, no animal can live with a body temperature of sixty-six degrees. It's just... absolutely impossible!"
I touched Rebel. My dog was no longer warm. His white hair felt hard and coarse. His head turned, and the single eye found me. His tail began to wag, with obvious effort. and then the tongue slid from between the teeth in that awful, flesh-ripped grin and licked my palm. His tongue was as cold as a tombstone.
But he was alive.
Rebel stayed at Dr. Lezander's house. Over the following days, Dr. Lezander stitched his torn muzzle, filled him full of antibiotics, and was planning on amputating the crushed leg but then it began to wither. The white hair fell away, exposing dead gray flesh. Intrigued by this new development, Dr. Lezander postponed the amputation and instead wrapped the withering leg to monitor its progress. On the fourth day in Dr. Lezander's care, Rebel had a coughing fit and vomited up a mass of dead tissue the size of a man's fist. Dr. Lezander put it in alcohol in a bottle and showed it to Dad and me. It was Rebel's punctured lung.
But he was alive.
I began riding Rocket over to Dr. Lezander's every day after school to check on my dog. Each afternoon, the doctor wore a freshly puzzled expression and had something new to show me: pieces of vomited-up bones that could only be broken ribs, teeth that had fallen out, the blinded eye that had popped from its socket like a white pebble. For a while Rebel picked at strained meat and slurped a few tonguefuls of water, and the newspapers at the bottom of his cage were clotted and soaked with blood. Then Rebel stopped eating and drinking, wouldn't touch food or water no matter how much I urged him. He curled up in a corner, and stared with his one eye at something behind my shoulder, but I couldn't figure out what had his attention. He would sit like that for an hour or more, as if he'd gone to sleep with his eye open, or he was lost in a dream. I couldn't get him to respond even when I snapped my fingers in front of his muzzle. Then he would come out of it, all of a sudden, and he would lick my hand with his tombstone tongue and whine a little bit. Then he might sleep, shivering, or he might slide off into the haze again.
But he was alive.
"Listen to his heart, Cory," Dr. Lezander told me one afternoon. I did, using the stethoscope. I heard a slow, labored thud. Rebel's breathing was like the sound of a creaking door in an old deserted house. He was neither warm nor cold; he just was. Then Dr. Lezander took a toy mouse and wound it up, and he set it loose to twist and turn right in front of Rebel, while I listened to his heartbeat through the stethoscope. Rebel's tail wagged sluggishly. The sound of his heart never changed an iota from its slow, slow beating. It was like the working of an engine set to run at a steady speed, day and night, with no increase or decrease in power no matter what the engine's job required. It was the sound of a machine beating in the darkness without purpose or joy or understanding. I loved Rebel, but I hated the hollow sound of that heartbeat.
Dr. Lezander and I sat on his front porch in the warm October afternoon light. I drank a glass of Tang and ate a slice of Mrs. Lezander's apple cake. Dr. Lezander wore a dark blue cardigan sweater with gold buttons; the mornings had taken a chilly turn. He sat in a rocking chair, facing the golden hills, and he said, "This is beyond me. Never in my life have I seen anything like this. Never. I should write it up and send it to a journal, but I don't think anyone would believe me." He folded his hands together, a tawny spill of sunlight on his face. "Rebel is dead, Cory."
I just stared at him, an orange mustache on my upper lip.
"Dead," he repeated. "I don't expect you to understand this, when I don't. Rebel doesn't eat. He doesn't drink. He voids nothing. His body is not warm enough to sustain his organs. His heartbeat is... a drum, played over and over in the same tattoo without the least variation. His blood-when I can squeeze any out-is full of poisons. He is wasting away to nothing, and still he lives. Can you explain that to me, Coryi"
Yes, I thought. I prayed Death away from him.
But I didn't say anything.
"ah, well. Mysteries, mysteries," he said. "We come from darkness, and to darkness we must return." He spoke this almost to himself as he rocked back and forth in his chair with his fingers interwoven. "True of men, and animals, too."
I didn't like this line of thought and conversation. I didn't like thinking about the fact that Rebel was getting skinny and his hair was falling out and he didn't eat or drink but he lived on. I didn't like the empty sound of his heartbeat, like a clock working in a house where no one lived anymore. To get my mind off these thoughts, I said, "My dad told me you killed a Nazi."
"Whati" He looked at me, startled.
"You killed a Nazi," I repeated. "In Holland. My dad said you were close enough to see his face."
Dr. Lezander didn't reply for a moment. I remembered Dad telling me not to ask the doctor about this subject, because most men who'd been in the war didn't like to talk about killing. I had feasted on the exploits of Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Saunders, and the Gallant Men, and in my visions of heroes war was a television show adapted from a comic book.
"Yes," he answered. "I was that close to him."
"Gosh!" I said. "You must've been scared! I mean... I would've been."
"Oh, I was scared, all right. Very scared. He broke into our house. He had a rifle. I had a pistol. He was a young man. a teenager, actually. One of those blond, blue-eyed teenaged boys who love a parade. I shot him. He fell." Dr. Lezander kept rocking in his chair. "I had never fired a gun before. But the Nazis were in the streets, and they were breaking into our houses, and what could I doi"
"Were you a heroi" I asked.
He smiled thinly; there was some pain in it. "No, not a hero. Just a survivor." I watched his hands grip and relax on the armrests. His fingers were short and blunt, like powerful instruments. "We were all terrified of the Nazis, you know. Blitzkrieg. Brownshirt. Waffen SS. Luftwaffe. Those words struck us with pure terror. But I met a German a few years after the war was over. He had been a Nazi. He had been one of the monsters." Dr. Lezander lifted his chin and watched a flock of birds winging south across the horizon. "He was just a man, after all. With bad teeth, body odor, and dandruff. Not a superman, only one man. I told him I'd been in Holland in 1940, when the Nazis had invaded us. He said he wasn't there, but he asked me... for forgiveness."
"Did you forgive himi"
"I did. Though I had many friends who were crushed under that boot, I forgave one of the men who wore it. Because he was a soldier, and he was following orders. That is the steel of the German character, Cory. They follow orders, even if it means walking into fire. Oh, I could have struck that man across the face. I could've spat on him and cursed him. I could've found a way to hound him until the day he died, but I am not the beast. The past is the past, and sleeping dogs should be left alone. Yesi"
"and speaking of sleeping dogs, we ought to go have a look at Rebel." He stood up, his knees creaking, and I followed him into the house.
The day came when Dr. Lezander said he had done all he could and there was no use to keep Rebel at his house anymore. He gave Rebel back to us, and we took him home in the pickup truck.
I loved my dog, though the gray flesh showed through his thin white hair, his skull was scarred and misshapen, and his withered gray leg was as thin as a warped stick. Mom couldn't be around him. Dad brought up the subject of putting Rebel to sleep, but I wouldn't hear it. Rebel was my dog, and he was alive.
He never ate. Never drank a drop. He stayed in his pen, because he could hardly walk on his withered leg. I could count his ribs, and through his papery skin you could see their broken edges. When I got home from school in the afternoons, he would look at me and his tail would wag a few times. I would pet him-though I have to be honest here and say that the feel of his flesh made my skin crawl-then he would stare off into space and I would be as good as alone until he came back, however long that might be. My buddies said he was sick, that I ought to have him put to sleep. I asked them if they'd like to be put to sleep when they got sick, and that shut them up.
The season of ghosts came upon us.
It was not just that Halloween loomed close at hand, and that the cardboard boxes of silky costumes and plastic masks appeared on the shelves at Woolworth's along with glittery magic wands, rubber pumpkin heads, witches' hats, and spiders jiggling on black webs. It was a feeling in the crisp twilight air; it was a hush across the hills. The ghosts were gathering themselves, building up their strength to wander the fields of October and speak to those who would listen. Because of my interest in monsters, my buddies and even my parents concluded that Halloween was my favorite time of year. They were right, but for the wrong reasons. They thought I relished the skeleton in the closet, the bump in the night, the sheet-wrapped spook in the house on the haunted hill. I did not. What I felt in the hushed October air, as Halloween came nearer, was not the dime-store variety of hobgoblin, but titanic and mysterious forces at work. These forces could not be named; not headless horseman, not howling werewolf or grinning vampire. These forces were as old as the world and as pure in their good or evil as the elements themselves. Instead of seeing gremlins under my bed, I saw the armies of the night sharpening swords and axes for a clash in the swirling mist. I saw in my imagination the tumult on Bald Mountain in all its wild and frantic frenzy, and at the crowing of a rooster to announce the dawn all the thousands of capering demons turning their hideous faces toward the east in sadness and disgust and marching away to their fetid dens in step with the "anvil Chorus." I saw, as well, the broken-hearted lover pined away to a shade, the lost and sobbing translucent child, the woman in white who wants only kindness from a stranger.
It was thus on one of these still, cool nights approaching all Hallow's Eve that I went out to see Rebel in his pen and found someone standing there with him.
Rebel was sitting on his haunches, his scarred head cocked to one side. He was staring at a figure who stood on the opposite side of the mesh fence. The figure-a little boy, I could tell it was-seemed to be talking to Rebel. I could hear the murmur of his voice. as soon as the back door closed behind me, the little boy jumped, startled, and took off running into the woods like a scalded cat. "Hey!" I shouted. "Wait!"
He didn't stop. He ran over the fallen leaves without making any noise at all. The woods swallowed him up.
The wind blew, and the trees whispered. Rebel circled around and around in his pen, dragging his withered leg. He licked my hand with his chilly tongue, his nose as cold as a lump of ice. I sat with him for a while. He tried to lick my cheek, but I turned my face away because his breath smelled like something dead. Then Rebel went into one of his fixed stares again, his muzzle aimed at the woods. His tail wagged a few times, and he whimpered.
I left him staring at nothing and I went inside because it was getting cold.
Sometime during the night, I woke up in agony because I had refused Rebel my cheek to lick. It was one of those things that grew and grew, until you couldn't stand to live with it inside you. I had rejected my dog, pure and simple. I had prayed Death away from him, and my selfishness had caused him to exist in this state of betwixt and between. I had rejected him, when all he'd wanted to do was lick my cheek. I got up in the dark, put on a sweater, and went to the back door. I was about to turn the back porch light on when I heard Rebel give a single bark that made my hand stop short of the switch.
after years of having a dog, you know him. You know the meaning of his snuffs and grunts and barks. Every twitch of the ears is a question or statement, every wag of the tail is an exclamation. I knew this bark: it spoke of excited happiness, and I hadn't heard it since before Rebel had died and come back to life.
Slowly and carefully, I nudged the back door open. I stood in the dark and listened through the screen. I heard the wind. I heard the last of summer's crickets, a hardy tribe. I heard Rebel bark again, happily.
I heard the voice of a little boy say, "Would you like to be my dogi"
My heart squeezed. Whoever he was, he was trying to be very quiet. "I sure would like for you to be my dog," he said. "You sure are a pretty dog."
I couldn't see Rebel or the little boy from where I stood. I heard the clatter of the fence, and I knew Rebel had jumped up and planted his paws in its mesh just as he used to do when I went out to be with him.
The little boy began to whisper to Rebel. I couldn't make out what was being said.
But I knew now who he was, and why he was here.
I opened the door. I tried to be careful, but a hinge chirped. It was no louder than one of the crickets. as I walked out onto the porch, I saw the little boy running for the forest and the moonlight shone silver on his curly, sandy-colored hair.
He was eight years old. He would be eight years old forever.
"Carl!" I shouted. "Carl Bellwood!"
It was the little boy who had lived down the street, and who had come to play with Rebel because his mother would not let him have a dog of his own. It was the little boy who had burned up in his bed when a bad electrical connection had thrown a spark, and who now slept on Poulter Hill under a stone that read Our Loving Son.
"Carl, don't go!" I shouted.
He glanced back. I caught the white blur of his face, his eyes scared and glittering with trapped moonlight. I don't think he ever got to the edge of the woods. He was just not there anymore.
Rebel began to whine and circle in his pen, the withered leg dragging. He looked toward the forest, and I could not help but see his longing. I stood at the pen's gate. The latch was next to my hand.
He was my dog. My dog.
The back porch light came on. Dad, his eyes squinty from sleep, demanded, "What's all this hollerin' about, Coryi"
I had to make up a story about hearing something rummaging around the garbage cans. I couldn't use Lucifer as an excuse, as the second week of October Lucifer had been shotgunned to nasty pieces by Gabriel "Jazzman" Jackson, who'd caught the monkey ravaging his wife's pumpkin patch. I said I thought it might have been a possum.
at breakfast I didn't feel like eating. The ham sandwich in my Clutch Cargo lunchbox remained untouched. at dinner I picked at my hamburger steak. Mom put her hand against my forehead. "You don't have a fever," she said, "but you do look kind of peaked." This was pronounced peak-ed, and was Southern for "sick." "How do you feeli"
"all right." I shrugged. "I guess."
"Everythin' okay at schooli" Dad inquired.
"Those Branlins aren't botherin' you anymore, are theyi"
"But somethin' else isi" Mom asked.
I was silent. They could read me like a fifty-foot SEE ROCK CITY sign.
"Want to talk about it, theni"
"I..." I looked up at them in the comforting kitchen light. Beyond the windows, the land was dark. a wind sniffed around the eaves, and tonight clouds covered the moon. "I did wrong," I said, and before I could stop them tears came into my eyes. I began to tell my parents how much I regretted praying Death away from Rebel. I had done wrong, because Rebel had been so badly hurt he should've been allowed to die. I wished I hadn't prayed. I wished I could remember Rebel as he had been, bright-eyed and alert, before he had become a dead body living on the sheer power of my selfishness. I wished, I wished; but I had done wrong, and I was ashamed.
Dad's fingers turned his coffee cup around and around. It helped him sort things out, when there were many things to be considered. "I understand," he said, and two words were never more welcome. "You know, no mistake in the world can't be fixed. all it takes is wantin' to fix it. Sometimes it's hard, though. Sometimes it hurts to fix a mistake, but you have to do it no matter what." His eyes rested on me. "You know what ought to be done, don't youi"
I nodded. "Take Rebel back to Dr. Lezander."
"I think so," Dad said.
We were going to do it the next day. Later that night, as my bedtime approached, I took a piece of hamburger steak out for Rebel. It was a real dog's treat. I hoped he might eat it, but he smelled it and then just stared at the woods again as if waiting for someone to come for him.
I was no longer his master.
I sat beside him as the chill wind moved around us. Rebel made little whining noises deep in his throat. He let me pat him, but he was somewhere else. I remembered him as a puppy, full of boundless energy, enthralled by a yellow ball with a little bell in it. I remembered the times we had raced each other, and like a true Southern gentleman he had always let me win. I remembered when we flew, over the hills of summer. Even if that had only been in my imagination, it was truer than true. I cried some. More than some.
I stood up, and I turned toward the woods. I said, "are you there, Carli"
He didn't answer, of course. He had always been a shy little boy.
"I'm givin' Rebel to you, Carl," I said. "Okayi"
No answer. But he was there. I knew he was.
"Will you come get him, Carli I don't want him to be alone very long."
Just silence. Just the silence, listening.
"He likes to have his ears scratched," I said. "Carli" I called. "You're not burned up anymore, are youi Will Rebel... be like he used to bei"
The wind was speaking. Only that and nothing more.
"I'm goin' inside now," I said. "I won't come back out." I looked at Rebel. His attention was fixed on the woods, and his tail wagged the slightest bit. I walked into the house, shut the door, and turned off the back porch light.
Long past midnight, I awakened to the sound of Rebel's happy bark. I knew what I would see if I went to the back door. It was best they get to know each other without me butting in. I turned over, and I went back to sleep.
The next afternoon, at Dr. Lezander's, Dad and the doctor left me alone while I said good-bye to Rebel. He licked me with his cold tongue. I stroked his misshapen head and patted him for a while, and then it was time. Dr. Lezander had the form ready, and Dad held the pen poised for my final word.
"Dadi" I said. "He's my dog, isn't hei"
My father understood. "Yes, he sure is," he answered, and he gave the pen to me.
We left the form that said Case #3432 with Dr. Lezander, my name signed on the dotted line. When we got home again, I walked around in Rebel's pen. It seemed so very small. I left the gate open when I went out.
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