For whatever reason, Doug didn’t have much luck when it came to pets. The problem was that, whether through illness or accident, they tended to die well before the expiration of their natural life spans. From as early as he could remember, this had been particularly traumatizing.
The first to go had been his Doberman, a good-natured, albeit not terribly bright, dog named Duke. This had occurred at the farmhouse on Garst Road, on the outskirts of the town of Empire in the central valley of California, just before his father had packed up the family and moved to the nearby town of Turlock. Doug was about five or six at the time. Fortunately, he wasn’t present to witness Duke wander into the street that day. Unfortunately, he did arrive at the scene before his parents, having been drawn by the loud screeching of tires and blaring of a horn. He therefore witnessed his beloved Duke gasping for air, blood pouring from his nose, and a sickening gurgling and rattling sound coming from his throat. This continued until his father arrived and ordered Doug inside the house.
At the time, Doug couldn’t understand why animals had to die, especially good ones like dogs, which never hurt anybody. This is not to say he didn’t grasp the concept of death. He knew that things were born, grew old and then died, never to return. It was the finality of it all which caused his childish mind to revolt. He viewed death as a totally unnecessary and cruel phenomenon.
Not too many years later, he had a hamster named Rutherford that, though young, one day just stopped feeding. Doug tried everything in his power to induce him to eat, but to no avail. This was just after his parents had split up, so his mother was still very much adjusting to being on her own and unable to afford a vet bill. It tortured him, watching the little thing waste away and being unable to do anything about it. All he could do was cradle the fuzzy ball of fur in his palms, talk softly to him, try to make him comfortable.
Then, unexpectedly, Rutherford got his appetite back. He ate voraciously, enough probably for two hamsters. Doug, needless to say, was ecstatic. He spent much more time with him then before the little critter had gotten sick. If anything, this brush with death made him appreciate the tiny life he was responsible for more than ever before.
And it wasn’t just Rutherford’s appetite that improved. He was more alert and physically active as well, putting at least a mile a day on his hamster wheel. He continued to improve. After a week, Doug felt he could breathe again. His tiny pet had fully recovered.
A day or two later, he was dead in his cage.
Like Duke, the loss of this pet was traumatic, but for different reasons. Unlike the death of Duke, which had been sudden and unexpected, Rutherford’s demise had been slow and anticipated. And, of course, also unlike the previous case, this time Doug had been filled with a momentary sense of false hope, as if God was working himself up to a hilarious punchline, drawing out the joke as long as possible so he might give it a twist ending. The whole experience filled Doug with self-doubt. Questions remained. Had he done something to get his hamster sick in the first place? Had he been too complacent upon seeing him regain his appetite? Should he have monitored him more closely? Put him on a different diet? Taken him outside more often for fresh air?
These were, of course, fruitless questions forever to remain unanswered. Doug settled into a sad resignation that life was pointless and utterly devoid of any real meaning. Things were born. Things died. There was no reason for it. It just was.
Over the years, inevitably, other deaths followed. One winter morning, his brother-in-law Tim stopped by the house for something or other. While he was inside, Doug’s favorite cat Witten climbed under the hood of his truck to warm itself by the heat of the engine. Ten minutes later, the fan blade made short work of the poor thing, reducing it to a twisted snarl of fur and guts. And, particularly traumatic, was the time his beloved cocker spaniel Charlie had been accidentally run over in the driveway by Doug’s own sister.
Of all the pet deaths he had witnessed, though, perhaps the toughest to bear had been that of his father’s hunting dog, Comanche, who they had raised from a puppy. Since his dad had moved to the country, out by the golf course on the outskirts of Turlock, Doug spent his weekends there with not a single other kid within miles. Naturally, that dog had become his best and only friend. Though he looked rather goofy with his droopy ears and constantly wagging tongue, he was actually quite clever. He’d been bred from a long lineage of bird dogs.
Sometimes Doug would tag along with his father on pheasant hunts, not to shoot the birds, but to watch Comanche dash into the brush and, upon spotting a pheasant, freeze, snout thrust forward, front left paw bent ever so slightly back. It was clear he thoroughly enjoyed it. Doug, though not a hunter, was nevertheless extremely proud of his dog. They spent hundreds of hours together over the course of the four or five years his father owned him.
Comanche’s last day on Earth was every bit as much unexpected as it was horrific. In all respects, it had been just another typical Saturday. He and his dog had been running around the property, Comanche taking particular delight in chasing an old stray cat Doug had been leaving cans of tuna on the porch for over the past few months.
The cat was much too fast for the dog. Only once had he been able to catch him, and when he did, the cat threw such a fit that Comanche ran off, tail between his legs and a fresh scratch on his nose. Doug’s dog was too good-hearted to do much of anything else. The joy for him was clearly in the pursuit, not the capture.
Keeping up with an energetic dog in its prime was, of course, no easy feat, particularly in the triple digit Turlock summer heat. After an hour or so, Doug went inside to watch some TV and left Comanche to continue running around outside. He would invariably show up on the porch, pawing at the screen door around four or so in the afternoon, his unofficial dinnertime.
Inside was scarcely better than out when it came to the oppressive heat. The farmhouse apparently predated centralized air conditioning. Energy spent, Doug picked up the remote control and began sifting through the big steaming pile of crap that was daytime television. Finding nothing to keep his attention, he closed his eyes and dozed off.
When he awoke, the sky was a deep crimson. He sat up, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. His father had yet to return from town, where he frequently went on weekends. Though he was officially retired, he still spent much of his time down at the station flirting up the pretty secretary who worked the front desk. Doug got up, stretched, and headed toward the porch. His dinner time long past, Comanche had likely given up begging to get in and was probably curled up by the screen door.
Doug stepped outside. It was still quite hot out but not intolerably so. Comanche, though, was nowhere to be seen. He called out to him a few times and, at the risk of letting more flies in, propped open the door with his father’s spittoon. Heading into the kitchen, he made himself a bologna sandwich, fully expecting his dog to come bounding into the house any moment.
It wasn’t until Doug had finished his food and washed the dishes that he realized his dog had still not returned. The first alarm bells began to tinkle ever so lightly in his head. He stepped outside and instinctively looked toward the street. Like any country road, cars treated it like a racetrack but Comanche was well trained and knew better than to wander anywhere near it.
He took a walk out to the edge of the property, toward a small cluster of dried out and unhealthy looking elm trees. His dog liked to rest in the scant shade there. But not this time. Could he be messing around with that cat again?
Doug walked back toward the house, calling his dog’s name as he went. As he neared the back porch, he saw the cat picking at the remains of that morning’s tuna. The alarm bells rose by a few decibels. He stuck his head in the house for a moment to check if Comanche had made his way in during the few minutes he had been out looking. No luck.
At this point, the idea that something bad may have happened to his dog first began to morph from a vague and unlikely possibility to a concrete and ever more likely certainty. He recalled a game of fetch they had once played, years before, when Comanche was still a pup. Back then, his dad, freshly divorced, had lived in town, out near the high school, with a pool in the backyard. Usually he and his dog would play fetch in a vacant lot nearby where there was plenty of room to run. This day, though, had been a typical Turlock summer one, brutally hot. To avoid wearing Comanche out with the heat, therefore, Doug switched the game to the water, tossing Comanche’s favorite frisbee into the pool.
As always, Comanche did nothing to conceal his excitement once he saw Doug grab the frisbee out of the pantry, where it was stowed alongside the sacks of dry dog food, leashes, and chewed up rawhide. His tongue wagged along with his tail in happy anticipation. They headed out to the pool and, immediately, the game commenced, with Doug tossing the frisbee in the water and Comanche paddling out to the deep end and returning with it gripped tightly in his dripping mouth, ready for another round.
They continued like this for some time, a good thirty minutes at least, before Doug grew bored with the game. He would have stopped it altogether had not his dog been having such a good time. As a compromise, he grabbed a paperback and stretched out on the lawn chair by the water’s edge, his book folded in one hand while he used the other to absently toss the frisbee back in the pool each time it was returned to him.
The book was a good one and it wasn’t long before Doug, absorbed in the story, was no longer paying attention to the game at all. As often happened when he really got into a book, the rest of the world melted away as his imagination transported him into the fictional world of the narrative. His mind barely registered the repeated sounds of his dog splashing in the pool, the scrape of hard claws against the concrete tiles as he pulled himself out, the rattle of the bell on his collar as he shook off the water, and the rapid slapping of wet paws on pavement as he padded over to return the frisbee. Because his mind was so singularly engrossed, his body was essentially on autopilot. Every time Comanche would come back, Doug’s arm stretched itself out until the frisbee was nudged into his open hand. He would then toss it blindly into the pool again, more or less unaware he was even doing so.
Naturally, it never once occurred to him that maybe his dog was not merely tired but utterly exhausted from the non-stop jumping, swimming, climbing, and running that had, by this point, been going on for the better part of an hour.
The truth was, Comanche was well past the point of exhaustion. Ever eager to please, he continued playing the game anyway, perhaps reasoning in his own unique canine fashion that drowning was preferable to letting down who he likely considered the alpha male of his human pack, of his human family: Doug.
Fortunately, Doug’s external senses were dulled but still functioning. The first thing he noticed, something that pulled his mind from the story that had so captivated him, was the complete cessation of sound he had been unconsciously hearing over and over again from his dog for so long.
Doug was up and out of the lawn chair in seconds. He executed a kind of running stumble that ended in a very ungraceful dive into the pool.
Comanche’s body had gone completely limp. His legs were splayed out to the side and his snout and eyes were underwater, as if he were a snorkeler gazing at the bottom of the pool. His floppy ears stuck straight out from his head, floating lazily in the water, like small furry oars.
Doug pulled the lifeless body of his dog to the edge of the pool and, with a surge of adrenaline, hefted him out of the water.
Seconds later, he was crouched down with his ear to Comanche’s mouth, listening for breath and wondering just how in the hell one goes about performing CPR on a dog. Not knowing if such a thing would even work but also realizing he had no idea what else to do, Doug seized Comanche’s snout, brought it to his mouth, and prepared to blow.
Fortunately, his dog chose this moment to come out of it. He looked around for a moment, as if dazed, briefly stood on shaky legs, and then fell to his side, panting heavily.
Doug carried him inside and, crying with equal parts relief and shame, sat with him the rest of the afternoon, spoiling him rotten with all his favorite treats, making a silent vow to never again be so careless with his dog.
For weeks afterward, Doug had been riddled with guilt. Comanche had been ready to drown himself rather than, as he apparently perceived it, let his master down. And Doug had been too blind and preoccupied to even realize it until it had been almost too late.
Doug shook off the memory and broke into a jog, circling the property, calling out his dog’s name ever louder as he went. After a couple of circuits around the house, he headed out toward the small barn, which his father had converted into a sort of hobby shack, where he kept his tools, woodwork, homemade fishing lures and whatnot. Now that he had retired, the space was used much more frequently and had become increasingly cluttered with each passing week.
He didn’t really think Comanche would be in there. For one thing, he wasn’t allowed to be and, if nothing else, he was an obedient dog. Yet dogs, like kids, are known to get into mischief when left to themselves, so it was worth a look.
The first thing he noticed as he approached was the door, which was cracked open about a foot or so. This wasn’t good. It was supposed to be locked shut. He wondered if his dog would take this as an invitation to enter.
He stepped inside and fumbled for the light switch he knew to be somewhere off to his left. He stopped abruptly upon hearing a scuffling sound and, a moment later, the faint jingle of the bell attached to his dog’s collar. An immense wave of relief swept over him as he again groped for the light. Comanche was alright. He had probably kept quiet because he knew this place was off-limits and he might be in trouble.
Doug finally found the switch and the small barn was instantly bathed in a sickly yellow light emanating from a single bulb dangling from a rafter. Thick particles of dust floated in the air like a swarm of flies. Comanche was there, off in the corner, whimpering quietly. As he approached, his dog came forward to greet him. Rather, he attempted to. His legs dragged limply behind him as he tried to pull himself forward, using only his arms for leverage.
Doug quickly squatted down in front of his dog, trying his best to assess whatever injury he had sustained. His first thought was that he had somehow managed to break both his hind legs. Unfortunately, it was nothing so benign.
With tremendous effort, Comanche managed to drag himself another few inches until his head rested in his master’s lap. Doug reached down and stroked his dog’s cheek and felt something wet and foul on his hand. He instinctively pulled his arm away and, with a shock more intense than any he had ever known, saw his palm smeared with phlegm and blood. Peering down in the dim light, he noticed for the first time the frothy mix of red foam and spittle coating Comanche’s lips. And, much worse, heard the harsh rattle of his labored breath.
Doug didn’t know what was wrong, much less what to do about it. His dad might know what to do but he didn’t know how to reach him. Utterly helpless, he collapsed in the dust, cradled his dog’s head against his chest, and wept.
It wasn’t until a week or so later that he learned Comanche had eaten some pellets of rat poison his father had put out. Apparently the stuff was made to smell good, the better to attract its victims.
Doug buried his dog out near the edge of the property, beneath that old cluster of elm trees, in the spot where he would so often sit to escape the heat of summer, eyes glued to the front porch, patiently waiting to be let in the house.