I once heard a saying from someone who believed that, uncompromisingly, women fantasize about being rescued, and men fantasize about being the rescuers. I can’t attest to the statement’s ubiquity, but when I was young, this belief, in part, held to be true.
Looking back now, it’s almost alarming the amount of time I conjuring up ludicrous scenarios in which I could step in, the valiant white knight, and save my distressed damsel from whatever catastrophes descended upon her. Maybe this urge stemmed from a desire to be noticed, recognized for my feats of bravery, and then appreciated thereafter. Of course, I know now that it’s a false way of thinking, to protect someone out of selfish intentions. At the time, it all seemed the same to me.
“Maurice,” my mom called from the kitchen, pulling me abruptly from a half-sleep occupied with one such fantasy. “Wake up. Watch your sister. We’re making dinner.” I flinched, both at my mom’s use of my middle name and her request.
“She’ll be fine,” I mumbled, careful to mumble so my mom couldn’t hear. I resented being dragged on another family trip to the mountain cabin during my Christmas vacation, and I was committed to spending the whole time conveying this loathing. No other thirteen year old I knew was being subjugated to such acute torture. “Last time I checked, boredom can’t actually kill anyone.”
“What was that?”
‘Nothing. You got it. Watching her.” I feigned acquiescing to her irrelevant demand, pulled my hat back down over my eyes, and proceeded to continue my dream. Moments later, I was again pulled out of my self-induced hallucinations by a shrill, surely inhuman shriek from the yard outside the cabin. I lifted my hat and sat up straight in my recliner, holding my breath to listen. The creak of the screen door swinging open, then slamming shut. Loud voices. Louder still. My heart sunk with the realization that something was wrong. I considered, for a moment, pulling my hat back down and pretending I was sleeping. That I didn’t hear anything, and my family could inform me what happened later, when whatever calamity outside was over and the time I would be called to action was long over. The blood pounding in my ears and terror seizing my heart like a vice made that impossible. Despite every muscle in my body resisting, I worked up the courage to pull myself up and find out what happened.
I made my way through the cabin, the air thick with the smell of freshly prepared beef stew and cornbread, as if to beckon me to sit and eat. “Forget about what’s going on. Everyone else will take care of it. It’s not your job. Just take it easy.” As I entered the kitchen, an overwhelming sense of loneliness washed over me, so sharp and strong it felt like the air was being sucked from my lungs. The plywood cabinets over the oven, still partially opened. The blue flame heating the cast iron pot, flickering in the breeze from the open door. The stew, boiling and bubbling and threatening to spill over the sides. All the stability and normalcy of my life abandoned in an instant, as though some rapturous force my Sunday educators were always warning against swept through the cabin, and I was the only living thing enduring the wake of its divine judgment. In that moment – and it only lasted a moment – I felt the weight and the burden of everything, like the torch was being passed to me even though I wasn’t yet ready to handle it, I didn’t have what it took to wield it. There again was the vice of terror, palpable in its intensity, gripping my heart again.
The heavy oak frame was still ajar, and I gazed out of the screen door. Through the frame obscured by the black netted screen door, I watched my family, huddled around something about 10 yards from the cabin, their feet buried in snow. I gently pushed the door open. The hinges creaked, and I grimaced, afraid to draw any attention, to elevate myself to anything other than observer in this situation. But they remained oblivious to my presence, distracted by whatever it was that lay in the middle of their circle.
As I took a few steps near them, the scene came into clearer focus. My mom and grandma hunched over my younger sister Emily, who was crouched over and holding her face. The white towel they pressed firmly against her forehead was turning a dark shade of red, and blood had already soaked the yarn butterflies of her yellow blouse. A few feet behind her, my grandpa stood next to Bailey, clutching the aged Black Lab’s weathered collar. Bailey struggled against his grasp, and yet despite my grandpa’s thin frame, Bailey could only whimper in discomfort.
I stood and watched them, the frigid wind like razors against my cheeks. I wanted to ask what happened, to run over to her and take charge like I did in my daydreams. In my daydreams, where I could handle any sort of devastation with a courageous bravado and a steeled will. Only this wasn’t a daydream, and the red droplets sprinkling into the snow weren’t projections of my imagination. Instead of rushing to her rescue, I stood still, tears forming in the corners of my eyes, my limbs as frozen as the ground under my feet.
My dad picked up Emily up and brought her back towards the cabin, cradling her in his arms, her head burrowed and bleeding into his chest. My mom and grandma followed closely behind, their faces as drained of color as the snow falling around them.
“Shaun, we’re going to take care of it. She’ll be fine, but you need to stay here,” my dad commanded as he rushed Emily up the stairs and into the cabin, her sobbing muffled by the front of his shirt. His words were a kick in the stomach that stole my breath again, and confirmed the fear I had the moment I heard her scream, but refused to believe. It was my fault. My mom specifically asked me to look after my sister, and it was my fault. My mom and grandma brushed me aside as well, saying nothing as they followed my father into the cabin. Bailey, my grandpa, and I stood in the silence and the cold.
The air continued to burn my lungs with every breath I took. I didn’t care. Through the window, I heard my grandma’s voice, erratic and hysterical.
“That goddamn dog,” she said, at once directed at everyone and no one in particular. “I told him, I told you father. I said to him, the first time it happened, I said ‘You better get rid of that dog, Ken. Now, I don’t care how you do it, but that dog ain’t right anymore, and you get rid of it.’ And now, look what happened. The dog ain’t right, and look what it’s done now.” She took a breath, exasperated. “What was Shaun doing? Wasn’t he watching her? You told him to watch her. Where was he?”
My dad’s voice, quieter, responded, but I could only catch small portions. Something about it being an accident. No one’s fault. He was wrong.
A wave of nausea hit me this time, and I bent over, clutching my knees with my hands, spit dripping from my mouth onto the front of my jeans. Breathing heavily, I looked up at Bailey. Still restrained by my grandpa, Bailey calmly stood in the snow, licking his paw, his tail between his legs. Gray streaks ran along his face, and his eyes were cloudy and glazed over. Visibly uncomfortable against my grandpa’s hold, but indifferent otherwise.
I continued to stare, and felt a lump of frustration swell in my lower throat. I must have been clenching my fists more tightly than I thought, because my nails dug painfully into my palms. I wanted to do to something to make it better, to stop Emily’s bleeding and take her wounds away. All I could do was stare. Stare as Bailey stood in the snow. Stare as my grandpa released Bailey and made his way to the shed, taking a key out from his jacket pocket and unlocking the latch on the splintered door. A minute later, my grandpa emerged from the darkness of the shed, rifle in his right hand.
I knew immediately what he was going to do. I knew, and I wanted to help. I wanted to take it out. I wanted to pull the trigger. To shoot it and watch it suffer. Watch as the life faded from its eyes.
My grandpa led Bailey over to his white truck. A green plastic tarp covered the truck’s bed, so my grandpa loaded Bailey into the back seat of the cab. The old dog’s legs couldn’t bridge the gap, and my grandpa assisted Bailey as it entered. As my grandpa walked around to the front of the truck, I approached the passenger’s side and entered. My grandpa looked at me through his glasses, his eyes sallow and tired. Then, without a word, he hauled himself into the truck, turned on the ignition, and pulled out onto the icy road that wound deeper into the mountains.
I knew we would not have to drive very far. Our cabin was located in a relatively secluded area of the mountains, and because it was winter, there were not many campers to contend with. The snow dampened mountain’s ambient noise while the scent of gasoline and pine tree filtered through the heat vents. I folded my arms across my chest, rubbing up and down to keep myself warm. I considered reaching over to turn up the heater, but the last thing I wanted to do was show weakness in front of my grandpa.
My grandpa’s gaze did not waver from the road in front of him. The faint glow of the dashboard lights cast shadows across his face. No tears ran through the valleys of his aging face, but underneath the wrinkles and lines etched across his cheeks, his jaw was clenched. This was the only sign that he was not perfectly calm. It was comforting. He was not immune to the evening’s events.
Bailey shifted in the backseat, edging up to lick the back of my neck, his wet nose rubbing against the collar of my shirt. I reached around and forcefully pushed him away. Bailey continued to try, confusing my aggression with a game we would play. I pushed him back again, hard. This time he didn’t come back.
I turned away from him and looked out the window. Watched the flakes hit the side. Melt to droplets. Drift down the side. Why did I leave her outside with the dog? Why did I not consider something like this could happen? Why was I not there to help her? These questions circulated mercilessly through my mind as we progressed deeper into the woods, our headlights cutting through the darkness underneath canopy of trees. We continued to drive, quietly nearing our destination when, quite suddenly, my grandpa broke the silence. “Sometimes these things happen,” he said, his voice raspy, eyes fixed ahead. “It was no one’s fault. It doesn’t change anything, but it was no one’s fault.” Just as quickly as he had begun talking, he stopped. I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t.
The clouds scattered overhead partially hid the moon, but its light persisted with an eerie brightness, illuminating the terrain as if to demonstrate that nothing we did would be a secret from omniscient eyes, if such eyes did exist.
I looked back at Bailey. As I observed him laying down in the backseat, his head resting gently on his paws, I could feel myself falter. I had to stay focused. Letting go of my anger would only allow other emotions to creep in. Thoughts I had suppressed began needling into my mind. Never again would Bailey jump up and sleep at the foot of my bed, which he had a nice habit of doing on the coldest of nights. My heart buckled. I didn’t know how to reconcile the discord of my memory with the reality thrust upon us.
An abrupt stop once again pulled me out of my thoughts. We had arrived. Bailey leaned over and licked my grandpa’s hand. As my grandpa unbuckled his seatbelt, his cell phone vibrated against the seat. He looked at it for a second, then answered. After a few seconds, he simply said “good,” then handed the phone to me. Leaving the truck running, my grandpa walked around to help Bailey out of the backseat then walked around to help Bailey out of the backseat.
“Hey Shaun,” my dad said, his voice more worn than I can ever remember it sounding. “I just wanted to let you know your sister is okay. I know the two of you were probably worried about her.”
For the smallest instant, the dog refused my grandpa’s beckoning. He then obediently leapt out of the truck and into the snow, the white flakes sticking to his coat and accenting the grays of his face and eyes.
“Honestly, we’re relieved,” my dad continued. “It looks like Bailey’s teeth got her just under the hairline. If anything, it made the injury appear much worse than it was.”
As my grandpa reached in to grab the rifle, he looked me in the eyes, and I knew he expected me to say in the truck.
“Emily was probably just a little rough with him. You know how she can get.”
My grandpa walked Bailey a few yards ahead of the truck, gently guiding him along by his collar.
“Shaun? It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I just wanted you to know that. We’ll see you soon.”
I hung up the phone. My grandpa knelt down on one knee, his fingers working around the collar and removing it from the dog’s neck as Bailey licked his wrist. He then said a few words that were inaudible over the hum of the engine, briskly rubbed Bailey’s head, then got up and walked back towards the truck.
My heart beat rapidly. Were we doing the right thing? Did Bailey deserve to die like this? I tried to rationalize our actions. He hurt Emily. He could have killed her. Maybe not then, but he had the potential. He was becoming more prone to violent outbursts. Could we ever really trust him again, or would we just live in fear that he would lash out? My rationalizations made sense, but I wasn’t fooling anyone.
My grandpa took his stance, raising the rifle to his shoulder. He was poised and unwavering.
Maybe we were doing the wrong thing. Maybe there was another way.
My grandpa closed his right eye, taking aim at the animal which he had spent the last decade with.
My sister was okay. We could all go back, together, and just isolate Bailey so that he couldn’t hurt…
The gunshot cracked through the quiet mountain air. The headlights exposed the body of Bailey, lying on his side, a small circle of blood soaking the snow underneath his neck.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to stop the tears, hot against my cheeks. I watched through blurred vision as my grandpa lowered the rifle. He braced it in both hands, then turned and made his way back to the truck, not allowing himself to glance behind him. I stopped myself from finishing the thought that we should bury Bailey properly. The ground would be too frozen. It wasn’t fair.
I sat there in the truck, staring vacantly at the scene in front of me. A numbing sensation washed over me, and I could feel nothing. I could do nothing. Getting in the truck didn’t change anything. I was still little more than an observer.
My grandpa climbed back into his seat, pulled in reverse, and began the trek home. The shot still rang in my ears, and the image of Bailey, lying lifeless on the ground, lingered in my thoughts. My grandpa looked over at me and broke the silence for the second time that night.
“Listen,” he began, speaking slowly and carefully. He paused for a moment, his cloudy blue eyes searching. “I imagine you’re struggling right now. I don’t blame you. I myself struggle with it, too. More than you know, I imagine. But you have to know that what we did tonight…it didn’t matter if your sister was okay or not. What happened with your sister happened, regardless of how dire or trivial her injury. You have to separate the consequences from the event. You understand? This had nothing to do with punishment or retribution. He paused for again, reaching up to adjust his glasses.
“We do what we have to do to protect the people you care about. Understand?” His voice was firm, but he offered me a charitable half-smile and patted me on the back of my neck. For the second time that night, my grandpa spoke to me, and for the second time, I had nothing to respond with.
Years before, my family bought a puppy named Belle that ran away within a month of us bringing it home. I was wracked with guilt for leaving her outside to play and sure she had died. To comfort me, my mom pointed out a lone dandelion that had managed to jut out from between the cracks of the sidewalk, reasoning with me that if this flower could find a way to survive when circumstances demanded its surrender, then surely Belle was still alive as well. “Life finds a way,” she told me. As my grandpa drove me back to the cabin that night, the smell of Bailey’s wet fur still lingering in the truck, I thought of Belle again. I tried looking out the window at any dandelions or other plants that persisted through the harsh conditions, anything that defied the laws they were bound by. Nothing remained but a uniform layer of snow that blanketed the earth.