Doug wasn’t stupid. He knew that dogs, cats, and all manner of household pets got themselves killed by wandering into the road. At only seven years old, he could not have explained the physics involved, but he was smart enough to know that the outcome of a collision between even the smallest vehicle and the largest animal would always have a clear winner and loser.
Again, he wasn’t stupid.
Yet he never feared for his beloved cocker spaniel’s safety. His house on Bridgeport Court was safely tucked into the corner of, well, a court. Cars didn’t whiz by as they did on the busier roads like Geer or Monte Vista. By the time anyone reached Doug’s house they had effectively reached a dead end. Unless they planned on plowing into the living room of the last house on the street, they would already be traveling at a crawl, ready to park or turn around and leave the way they came in.
On the lazy September day that was to be Charlie’s last, Doug was fooling around the house, in mediocre spirits, making the best of his summer vacation which was, unfortunately, about to end. Third grade would soon begin and, if experience had taught him anything, it was that the overall quality of life decreased dramatically with each successive year. The subjects would be twice as hard and the homework twice as much. To top it all off, he had recently learned he was assigned to the class of Ms. Santiago, a woman rumored to be mean as a witch with a face that every kid in school agreed bore a striking resemblance to an angry horse.
But Doug was quite good at pushing stuff like that out of his mind, focusing on the pressing concerns of the moment, such as what toys to play with, cartoons to watch, or cereal to eat. It was in such a state of mind that his big sister Lisa found him that afternoon.
Twelve years his senior, Lisa was already out of the house. She had a job up in Modesto at Winchell’s Donuts and shared an apartment with her goofy boyfriend Tim. And, of course, like all grownups, she had a car.
The car in question was a dirty yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Presumably because of its color, she always called it a lemon. It was pretty banged up, with dents all along the side and one of the lights in the back had been busted out somehow. It was so loud that, if out in the yard, it would be heard a good ten seconds before it was seen. Doug always thought the rattle of his sister’s car must be what God sounded like if he were to crap his pants.
One time, not long before, it had even caught fire. His other sister Laurie had been in the passenger seat at a gas station smoking a cigarette while Lisa filled up the tank. The fumes somehow leaked into the car and the whole inside went up in flames. The door handles were so hot Laurie couldn’t even open the door. She would’ve cooked like a turkey if the gas station attendant hadn’t got there in time to pull her out.
Lisa, though, handled that situation as she did any other; calmly and without even the hint of panic or distress. So mature was she that sometimes Doug considered her more of a second mom than an older sister. This made it all the more alarming when she walked into the living room with large wet eyes, all red and drippy. “Something terrible happened, Bee,” she said, calling him by her favorite nickname. Nobody else was allowed to call him that. He never did understand what it meant.
As she sat down in the chair opposite, bringing her eyes to his level, Doug suddenly felt himself begin to sweat. It was a sticky and disgusting feeling that came not from being hot but rather from being cold, like a big nest of ice crystals had formed in his stomach and were beginning to spread outwards into his arms and legs. He fought back an inexplicable urge to vomit all over the carpet.
“Terrible?” Doug asked, in the most casual tone he could manage. It had suddenly become extremely important that he remain in control of himself. His sister was already starting to come apart. Therefore, he must not. It was that simple. Whatever awful news she was about to deliver, he would be strong enough for the both of them.
“I…Charlie, he…I didn’t see him and he…” She stopped for a moment and took a breath. “I just didn’t see him.”
Doug stared silently as his sister, trying to process this fragmented bit of information. “Is he hurt?” he asked calmly, yet already knowing the answer. The urge to puke was stronger than ever. Worse, he felt like he was losing his breath, as if an invisible hand was choking the air from his lungs.
Lisa looked down for a moment, a fresh set of tears tumbling down her cheeks. “Not hurt,” she managed. “Dead.”
The self-control Doug had convinced himself he possessed evaporated in an instant. His vision clouded with tears and his small body was wracked with sobs. It took some time before he was calm enough to hear the details. Lisa had wanted to spare him these gruesome particulars but Doug was insistent she tell him.
Charlie was his best friend, he needed assurance that the final moments of his little black cocker spaniel’s life were at least quick and without too much pain. If the end was not fast and merciful, well, then he would just have to bear that news as well as his seven year old heart could manage. At the end of the day, Doug’s own misery was inconsequential compared to his desire to know the complete and total truth about the terrible fate which had befallen his dog.
For many years afterward, Doug wished his sister would have just lied to him.