THE STRAY, by adam cogbill
What happened was, while they were driving, they hit a dog. It's possible that they didn't see the dog, or miscalculated its rate of movement, or it was already motionless in the road, but what's certain is that they felt a bump and there was a yelp and they pulled over. Later, they thought of the dog as construction paper, something fragile and easily torn. But at the time, they looked at each other and decided it was better to get out and see.
It was an old mutt. Its whiskers and tail were lined with gray. The rest of the dog was black with a white stripe down the back. They couldn't tell where they'd hit it, but its right rear leg was still. It kept trying to stand. They lit cigarettes and smoked animatedly to occupy their hands and mouths and they talked about how ugly it was, the ugliest mutt they'd ever seen, but the truth was it made them all nervous. Its teeth were like crooked stalactites protruding past black jowls. It had a bent muzzle and its eyes were different sizes. It was missing chunks of fur from its dusty coat and its nails were too long. It smelled like rotten meat and its skin, showing through in some places, looked mottled.
They decided they couldn't leave the dog in the road but weren't sure where to take it. They considered various options. They could bury it behind one of their houses. There was the town dump, or the abandoned factory a few miles down the road. The dog reminded them of a decayed, well-used sofa abandoned in an attic for years.
Eventually, they decided on their woods. It did not belong to them, but they thought of it that way. They thought of playing football between and around the trees, and they thought of swinging from branches that should have broken under their weight but didn't. They thought of the barbecue pit they'd built from gathered stone, and they thought of the three clearings in which they'd camped at various times. They knew every inch of the woods. The woods had a different sort of gravity than the rest of the planet, and inside they could float and fly and fall harmlessly.
They picked up the dog, which was remarkably calm, or didn't have the strength to fight back. It felt light in their arms, as though its bones were hollow. They passed it gently back and forth so they could all understand what it felt like to carry such an animal. They put their hands under its head to provide support and they scratched behind its ears. It did not respond. As they drove, they held the dog so that it could see from the windows the winter-covered town they'd lived in for so long.
The woods were cold. The sky could have splintered, ripped open. They imagined underneath the sky's skin was a black pulp, full of yellow stars, dust, planets. Their tracks were heavier than usual because of the dog's weight. When they looked back, their footprints appeared crushed into the Earth through tremendous force. They could see fissures in trees where the bark had split in the cold and they reflected that they'd never noticed this before. The dog's breath was visible only in the thin puffs of steam from its nostrils.
They placed the dog in one of the clearings they knew. They found themselves surprised that the dog had arrived here as well, like it had appeared on its own. They stared at the dog and kicked snow toward its head to see if it would react. The dog wheezed and blinked as the spray fell across its eyes. They brushed off its matted fur with shaking red hands. They thought the dog looked like wadded cotton balls, a pile of lint. It was a soggy bath mat, a pillow left out in the rain. It was a patch of dead grass. But it was alive, too, and later, when they tried to talk about it, they thought that perhaps that was the reason for everything going the way it did.
What they did was think about the times their fathers had found birds fallen from nests and rabbits with broken legs. They stood close to each other and did not look at the dog, and again they lit cigarettes, and they told stories about the times they'd come here and had a little to drink and talked about the girls they loved so much and the things they hoped to do together. And then they began to look around them for anything that might be heavy enough to put a dog to sleep. This was what they called it, sleeping the dog.
As they searched, they imagined the dog as a patch of air that had turned brown and black. Even though they had carried it, felt its fur and weight on their hands, they had trouble thinking of it as a real thing because they believed that real things should not be fragile. And if the mutt, which lay alone and barely breathing behind them in the snow could hang by such thin threads to life, than it was possible that they themselves could struggle through seconds and minutiae, and they themselves could be so fragile and alone.
What they did was drag a small fallen tree back to the dog. While they were gone, the dog crawled a few feet from where they'd left it. The path the dog had left in the snow was scattered with small chunks of soggy fur and they thought of scars. The mutt began to pant and its tongue rolled over its lips and laid dripping in the snow.
They lifted the log together and positioned themselves over the dog. Around them, the snow covering the trees shimmered angrily. The dog's exposed ear moved slightly as cold breezes brushed it. Everything was delicate and cold and then one of them counted backwards from three to one and they dropped it.
They dropped it unevenly and the log fell on the dog's head at a slight angle. The sound was the strangest part, a soft whump like a rock hitting a pillow, followed by a cracking sound as the log bounced off the dog's skull.
They could only stare at first, because how could they move after that, the entire world consisted not of seconds accumulating but of seconds falling away until it happened, and then the dog began to cry, long sounds that the animal was unable to sustain, a painful vibrato. Its legs jerked and it began to drag itself desperately through the snow, and it could not stand or roll over so it flopped on its side. Blood drooled from its head, turning the snow the color of roses.
They panicked. There was yelling. They rushed to grab the log and the mutt at the same time and they spoke lines of incomprehensible words and the dog reached back with surprising speed and snapped at them, catching a chunk of palm and slicing an arm. They yelped and jerked and kicked at the dog, and they hit it with their fists. The dog's growl split into shards, high-pitched yelps and moans that slit the cold air and hung in the trees. The dog writhed in the snow, limbs jerking at strange angles. A choking sound occasionally escaped its throat. They grabbed each other and pulled themselves away and the log split their clearing in half and the dog lay with jowls pulled back over black gums, eyes narrow black lines and twitching.
They looked at their hands, which were skin and blood and smoke. Their hands were rocks leaking water down surfaces into a gentle undisturbed pool. Everything was smooth.
They argued. Their voices were angry and afraid and whimpering and hoarse.
The dog was a dying hurricane. It was a pale candle melting in the snow. They bent again to move the log.
When they dropped it the second time, the yelp sounded like a scream. They heard a rib crack as it bounced, landed on the dog's head, and fell gently off like a rolling pin. The dog's eyes bulged from its skull, emerging from dark sockets like explosions. One leg spasmed back and forth uncontrollably. The dog's breathing was sand running through a sieve. Its mouth fell open, frozen in the still snow beneath it. Blood leaked from its skull. But they could hear it wheezing.
Still alive. It was not fragile at all, only broken. And that was worse, to know that death was not the result of being broken. They looked at their bodies and touched their skin and held their eyes shut tight, but it seemed that any part of them could at any time be pierced and shredded and torn away and nothing could be done about it.
For a while, none of them could breath normally. They watched the dog and the shadow of life left and waited. They swayed with the branches in the light wind and they brushed snow from each other's jackets and they wrapped a torn t-shirt around a bloody palm and set their jaws and their heads were empty of thoughts.
They knew they should have left long before. They should even have left at that moment. But they imagined that if they left, the dog would occupy their minds like a mountain range being born. They waited because maybe at the end there was light. Maybe at the end of the dog there was fresh air and relief and rocks washing into sand after weeks of being beaten in ocean waves. The dog, still as stars, was a desert. It was consuming. The snow around it seemed to change colors. The noises it made were random, long violent moans and short, labored exhalations. The boys breathed with it, held their breath when the dog vocalized, took long, careful breaths when it was silent.
Finally, they turned back the way they'd come. In the car was a baseball bat.
As they walked, they considered never turning around. They lit cigarettes and tried to teach themselves to blow smoke rings. The smoke came out in chunky puffs that melded together and they forgot themselves and laughed as they failed together.
The bat was aluminum. They had used it for City League baseball. The rubber handle was worn and frayed at the edges. The sweet spot was outlined by a blue dotted line. They had marked the handle with permanent marker for each hit they'd gotten. For a moment, they pictured each other hammering the dog's skull flat and marking the hilt with a black marker, the others cheering as though watching the winning run cross the plate in the bottom of the ninth. They imagined the dog did not feel pain. They told each other that there was no scientific proof that dogs actually felt pain the way humans did, and what was maybe more important, worse things happened every day. People did worse things than they were doing. There were so many worse places they could be, so many worse times. They thought about cannibalism and mass murder and rape, horrible diseases, paralysis, the plague, the Inquisition and all the stories they'd read as small children where the dog died in the end anyway, Big Red and Old Yeller. So nothing they did was the worst they could do.
On the way back, they passed the bat back and forth and explained the scuff marks decorating its barrel. This one for a triple. This one for batting practice. This one a suicide squeeze. There would be new scuffs. Their old footprints were trampled by the new and when they looked back, their tracks were intermeshed and the brilliant white snow had given way to dirt and dead leaves. They could hear the dog before they could see it. They took deep breaths and imagined it as an empty mesh sack, a pile of leaves.
The dog didn't look as they came back to the clearing. They stood above and then came the moment when their hands could not all grip the baseball bat due to laws of physics and what they suddenly considered flaws in the design of baseball bat grips and the bat would eventually find its way into one set of hands. They said they would stand and watch, no one would move. The dog was a blanket, a dirty rug. It was a puddle of rainwater. It was smoke. Then they began to swing.
They kept their eyes on the dog because they all wanted to see the same thing. Each wanted to see everything the others saw.
What they saw was difficult to define because after the first two downward swings, each closed his eyes. They saw metal and black silver fur. They saw the snow fade and the trees sway softly while their muscles stiffened, could feel the jolts through their shoulders and down their backs, and it felt like all the sounds, the harsh, sudden whimpers that they could predict to the millisecond because they coincided with the impact of the bat, which became simply an extension of their arms, and they wished the others could step back so that they could stop or at least tell each other that everything was over, because until then they would just swing harder and harder and faster, hoping that somehow it would become okay after it was done. And when they stopped, and the throbbing adrenaline began to fade, they stood like strays in the fading daylight with the dead dog.
What they did was walk to the car and go home.
They stayed awake at night and thought, it was only a stray, only a mutt. Or they replayed the events in their head and thought about all the movies they'd seen in which worse things happened. The thought about how fathers could beat children and babies starved to death and people were born chronically ill or suffered intense heartbreak and there was always a reason for these things, must be, or else there was no movement and everything must stop and wait for a movement, but time had not stopped so there was a reason somewhere hiding under all the words that they said to themselves and it was there and they would find it.
They were washing their car as they did every year before they left for the trip, as soon as it was warm enough. Normally they sprayed it with water, ran sponges over the panels, rinsed, but this year, they wanted to be more thorough. They wanted the cleanest car they'd ever driven. They wanted a car that looked new, looked bright and fresh, a diamond-skinned car. So they brought the soap and hot water and sponges, brought Windex, brought polish and rags. They brought ArmorAll, a hand vacuum. With a hose, they carefully sprayed the car. They drowned the doors and the hood, the trunk, the panels behind the backseat. The covered the hubcaps, the tires, the bumpers. The license plates. The top. They put the down the hose and soaped their sponges. They rubbed tenderly, in circular patterns. They washed gently and meticulously and put their faces close to the surface. They blew away loose particles of grunge and they re-soaked their sponges and counted strokes. In slow, even patterns, they washed away the dirt and grime, intent on transforming the car's body into its original, pure blue finish. They orbited, washing in columns. They scrubbed the car like a newborn. Then they rinsed, spraying even inside the holes in the hubcaps, the exhaust, the door handles, under the windshield wipers. Then they polished. They used touch-up paint for scratches, eyes close to fill the most microscopic flaws they could find. They clenched muscles to hold hands steady while running tiny brushes over the smallest details. The car, clean, was like water in sunlight. The sun set as they continued to polish and paint. Soon it was dark and they could see nothing. Frustrated, they covered the car with a large tarp and went home.
They drove their clean car through rain, even though the weather report claimed sun and clear sky. They did this every year, but this year in particular seemed important. To be driving a clean car to a clean place was important. As they drove, they pressed their faces to the windows, wrote themselves into the steamed glass. The car jerked and skidded suddenly when the driver saw a deer, battered and bloody, dead in the road. The concrete passed under them in a blurred spectrum of light to dark gray, and then the deer was gone, and then they were miles past.
It was only once they had passed the restaurants and gas stations that lay on the outskirts of the town that they realized they'd forgotten a key. They remembered that there might have been a spare key somewhere, but weren't sure where. The road was muddy and it made them uneasy to think of the dirt beginning to coat the bottom of their car.
They pulled into the gravel drive that wound around to the front of a cabin. There was a wide lake past the cabin and its surface looked pocked as raindrops created craters that instantly refilled and rippled outward. They wished people were like that: smooth surfaces whose craters refilled evenly. Displaced matter replaced.
It was a cabin they knew because they had spent weekends here before. But everything seemed different and off and wrong. They tried the door, which was bolted shut. It was beginning to get colder. Beyond the porch, the rain dripped from wooden beams, rolled down leaves and filled the lake. They told each other to look for the key. Inside the cabin were a fireplace and wood, blankets and pictures and light.
They began to look for the key. Under the green welcome mat, under the legs of the porch table. On windowsills, under flowerpots and in the mailbox. They soaked themselves in the rain, looking in back for possible hiding places. They crawled under the deck. They applied pressure to the windows. They put their fingers into the gutter's runoff spouts but found only grime and soaked leaves. They examined the undersides of the porch chairs. They went over each inch of the deck's railing to see if the key might have been hidden somewhere obvious and yet out of sight. They crawled under the deck and came out muddy and unrecognizable. Then they tried snagging the deadbolt with school IDs, sticks, car keys. They pushed the door, pulled it. They boosted themselves onto the roof and considered crawling down the chimney, which was much too narrow. They looked for storm doors and found none. There was no way into the house.
They sat down around the table on the porch and looked at the rain. There was no wind and the water fell straight down. In their heads, from nowhere in particular they began to rhyme words. They did not think about them, only placed them together in ways that made perfect sense. But one of them said it, and then no one could speak.
Hit the speed bump see the furry lump see the red pop right out the head.
They imagined that they'd woken up on driftwood in the middle of the Atlantic. They woke up flying and couldn't land. They woke as fish.
The rain drowned the out the normal background noises that silence usually consisted of, the barking dogs, chattering birds, cars driving past, the crying of a small child. Instead, there was the sound of the rain striking everywhere. This was not one sound, but millions of sounds, tiny flares firing over and over, bouncing off rooftops and blades of grass, gravel and metal and rubber and soil, and water washed over stained surfaces until the stains themselves seemed to become a part of their surface or were rinsed away completely, rainwater carrying bits of the sky with it so that earth and sky began to meld into a formless, shape shifting steam, and they sat in the middle of everything and watched the world breathe as they exhaled, their breath hanging for seconds in the air before disappearing into the history of the atmosphere along with the breath of millions of other people, all breathing smoke into silent places, and most of all trying to understand the actual silence stitched in between the raindrops, and how did they fill the silence, where were the words, and then they came.
Words came rushing from their mouths like avalanches and they started with I can't believe it and then came we couldn't have left it there and then came I tried to tell my dad about it. I didn't say anything to my parents what about your hand? I said I cut myself with a bread knife. I didn't know anything could hang on like that, me either yeah it really wouldn't give in, sometimes I think about how I couldn't have done that, me either remember that time we almost got into that fight with those guys? yeah my legs were shaking then. I don't know I just couldn't stop thinking about it, I couldn't sleep some nights I kept hearing that sound. the sound was the worst part yeah it was I've never heard a noise that sounded anything like that. it was bad I probably wouldn't have finished the whole thing if you guys weren't there. me either at least it's finished I can't imagine leaving it half dead like that worse than half dead it was so much worse than half dead if we hadn't finished it I don't even want to think about how long it would have lived and that would have been our fault. sometimes, and I'm not making an excuse, but there really is nothing you can do I mean we tried and it came out wrong and what more can we say it's not like worst things haven't happened. it's just that i didn't want it to go that way nobody did and it just wouldn't quit. You know what's awful? What's that no never mind it's really bad no what is it just say it no I shouldn't have said anything just forget it no come on you can say it now you have to say it now okay fine, honestly when you hit the dog and we got out and we looked at, it all I could think of and God I know this is awful, but honestly all I could think of was it'd be really funny to name a dog Speedbump.
They told stories about high school and the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to them, and maybe it was okay to speak to each other again even if laughing wasn't what they felt like doing. When it was too dark to see each other, they rose and disappeared into the darkness of the lawn and here I'll be honest and say that I sat and watched them until the light was completely gone and I could only catch glimpses of their bodies sliding past in the grass and I know what you think because it's what they think too, that it wasn't a big deal and it wasn't so bad, but it was and so I watched.
The rain fell and tried in vain to cleanse them as they tore paths through thick grass, covered themselves in mud. They slammed into each other, picked up and lost speed, fell and stood. The sounds of rushing air and bodies were everywhere and the air turned opaque in the rain, rain they tunneled through, rain that fell between their fingertips and toes. They imagined the ground, which they could hardly see, a maze of mud paths and collapsed grass.
I tried to imagine them as something else. As a haystack, as a pile of leaves rustled by wind, as trees sprouting through soil, but none of these were right because they were so terrifyingly real and everything that happened had happened to physical masses that had somehow evolved into more than simple matter, everything was condensed and thrown together in intricate patterns. So I kept seeing the paths they left, the trails blazed through mud and grass, remnants of their speed and power and zeal, paths that overlapped and cut, created shortcuts ornamented with handprints, hair, skin cells. Later, when they had fallen asleep in the car, I will admit that I tried sliding through the mud alone. I cut my knees on the grass and ripped roots with my toes. I wasn't trying to make paths but I was trying to follow theirs and couldn't at such high speeds, so I got up and walked in their trails, let the mud they created surround my feet, and I imagined them hoping as they slid that the others would see their trails when the morning came, trails they prayed would be crossed, guarded, loved.
This story originally appeared in the lantern-jawed and wholesome Volume 4 of The Ampersand Review.
ADAM COGBILL has been published in Galleon, Slow Trains, and Word Riot and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.