A man in his late thirties stands in the pouring rain as rivulets pour down his face. He’s drenched from head to toe. His shoes hold puddles drowning in mud. He should be freezing standing in the darkness in a T-shirt and jeans, but doesn’t notice. He just stares into the shadows, breathing in the silence and blinking through the drops that gather on his eyelashes.
Behind him, the lights are on in the house, smoke billows from the chimney signalling a warm haven from the waterfall of rain, but he doesn’t go back inside. Instead, he finally turns toward the leaking, dark shed, grabs a shovel and begins walking through trees to the back field.
* * *
Kristin was now confined to her bed. She lacked the strength to leave on her own and slept most of the day. Eric watched helplessly as she pulled further and further away from him. It was like watching her slip through a veil of fog and sleep, as impenetrable to him as her dreams.
He ached to hold her tight, keep her with him, but the more her pain intensified the more selfish he felt. He absorbed each moment she was awake and replayed each memory he had of her while she slept. He worked to memorize every detail of her being; her expressions, how she smelt, how she reacted when he teased her.
He didn’t know how much their 5-year-old son Dominic understood about what was going on. How can you understand the permanence of death when you’re still grappling with what it means to be alive?
Already an inquisitive and thoughtful child, Dominic seemed to hover at the edges of rooms watching them with his large, brown eyes.
After many talks he seemed to understand that Mama was going away for a long time even though she didn’t want to and that he wouldn’t be able to go along. But since no one knew when she’d leave, he seemed terrified he would miss the big good-bye. As each day went by, he became more and more reluctant to leave Kristin’s side.
One day Kristin had Eric go out and buy an action figure of Dominic’s favourite superhero. Spiderman was a legend in their household.
“After I’m gone and you want to tell me something, whisper it to Spidy and he’ll give me the message while you’re sleeping,” Kristin told him after he’d unwrapped it. He was curled up in her bed in his pj’s, his hair wet and smelling of freshly washed shampoo.
He clutched his Spiderman action figure in his fist and nuzzled down deeper into the covers. She softly stroked his hair as he fell asleep curled beside her.
“You realize,” Eric said from he chair beside her bed. “If he ever loses that, we’re in trouble.”
“No babe. You’re in trouble.” She winked at him with tired eyes and gave a soft laugh. “Serves you right for getting to see him graduate and get married.” Her voice cracked at the end. She turned her head to kiss Dominic’s hair.
* * *
He walked through the orchard until he reached the back meadow that overlooked the valley and the city lights. They gleamed their warmth and security from afar contrasting against the darkened meadow lit only by soft moonlight. He slid the shovel through the muck, scooping out mud and water that weighed his shovel down.
All he could hear was the pattering of rain as it pinged off every surface culminating into one steady current of sound that muffled everything else. Almost everything. He could still hear the soft sucking noise as he tore the earth, slicing it out with his shovel. And the sounds of his son screaming, though the boy was now asleep, echoing through the man’s head.
* * *
“You grab his paw,” Charlie said to Dominic. “And I’ll grab the other one.” The cousins each grabbed a paw of the stuffed puppy and leaped off the back of the couch.
“Super Dog to the rescue!” Charlie yelled. They landed with two loud thunks closely followed by a ripping sound as threads snapped and a seam on the puppy’s back split open.
“Oh no! He’s hurt,” Charlie cried. “My dad’s going to kill me!”
“It’s ok,” Dominic said. “I know where the first aid kit is.” He raced out of the room as Charlie tried to push the stuffing back into the broken dog.
He kept glancing up at the door to see if his dad was coming in. He would be so mad if he found out that Charlie had wreaked another toy. Hopefully, he was too busy talking to talking to people at the funeral.
“Got it!” Dominic shouted as he raced back into the room with the first aid kit. “Okay doctor. We’ll need to do surgery,” he said, now frowning seriously.
“Surgery,” Charlie asked, his eyes wide.
“Yup, if we want to save him. His odds of recovery will go up asto…astromatically,” Dominic said, as he searched through the supplies, shuffling things about in his haste to find what he was looking for.
“Okay,” Charlie said slowly.
“First, gloves.” Dominic handed one pair to Charlie then struggled to pry the other set of gloves onto his own hands. His tongue stuck out of his mouth as he worked to unstick the fingers. Finally, he managed to get them partway on and decided it was good enough.
“Next, Band-Aids” He tried to grab a few, but the gloves were too big and not on properly. The extra length of limp, latex hung off the ends of his fingers and made grabbing anything extra slippery. Charlie, who was having less luck, didn’t have his gloves on at all.
“Here, you open these.” Dominic dropped a handful of Band-Aids on the floor in front of Charlie. Frustrated, Charlie tossed his gloves to the side and began to tear open the Band-Aids.
Just as they were about to stick the first Band-Aid on, Dominic suddenly thought of something. “Wait. We need to put something inside to make him better. Like medicine.”
The boys glanced around the room.
“What about the remote controller?” Charlie asked.
“That’s not medicine,” Dominic said, wrinkling his nose. “Besides, it’s too big.” He squatted down to look under the couch.
“What about Spiderman?” Charlie asked, grabbing the action figure off the coffee table.
“No, Spidy’s special,” Dominic said, trying to grab him back.
“Exactly!” Charlie said, jumping out of reach. “He’s a superhero! He can fix anything!” Without waiting for an answer, Charlie pushed Spiderman into the wound, deep inside the stuffing. “There!” He grinned at Dominic. “You don’t want puppy to die, do you?
“No,” Dominic said, not taking his eyes from the puppy. “But as soon as he’s better you HAVE to give him back.”
“You have to promise.”
“I promise,” Charlie said.
“Okay.” Dominic said, still staring at the puppy, his lip trembling a bit.
The boys worked together to close the massive wound with 10 Band-Aids crosshatching and rippling across the stuffie’s back.
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” Charlie asked.
“We can only pray now,” Dominic said, solemnly.
“Hopefully my dad won’t notice all the band-aids.” Charlie said, frowning.
* * *
“Dad!” a voice screamed into the night. At first the man thought the voice was in his head, but it kept getting louder and more persistent. He stopped digging and stared into the black shapes of the orchard in front of him.
“Dad!” the voice called again.
* * *
Charlie raced outside after his older brother Carson, clutching his mangled, stuffed dog.
”Hey kids, before we leave, do you want to see the tree house we built when your Uncle Eric and I were kids?”
They wandered through the rows of apple trees. It was still too early in the year for fruit, but the leaves were out and the blossoms had fallen.
Near the edge of the property, there was a large peach tree that was too old and big to bear fruit anymore. Eric and Tom, with their dad, had built a modest tree house when they were younger.
As Tom explored the old tree house, the kids quickly grew bored and broke into a game of tag. Eventually, the game took them to the pet cemetery at the back fence.
“What are these?” Charlie asked, stopping to stare at that wooden crosses sticking out of the ground. Each cross had a name burned into it.
“Graves,” Carson said, matter-of-factly.
“Like Aunt Steph?” Charlie asked.
“No, these are for pets, stupid,” Carson said, giving him a shove.
“Don’t be mean,” Charlie said “Or I’ll tell Dad.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Carson stuck his tongue out at him.
Charlie dropped his puppy on the ground and walked closer to the graves, tracing the name on one of them with his finger.
“What does this one say?”
Carson didn’t bother answering. He snatched the stuffed dog off the ground and took off running. “I’ve got your do-og!”
“Hey! Give him back! Daa-ad!” Charlie tried to catch up, but Carson was 3 years older and much faster. When he finally caught up to him, Carson was almost to the top of the ladder to the tree house and their dad didn’t seem to be anywhere near.
“Give him back!” Charlie shouted again.
“What’s with all the Band-Aids?” Carson asked, poking his head out of the window. He peeled one off and dropped it to the ground below.
“He needed surgery! Give. Him. Back.” Charlie shouted, as he climbed up the ladder. “You’re going to hurt him!”
“It’s just a stupid, stuffed dog,” Carson said. He dangled the dog out the window. “Besides, what are you going to do about it?”
Charlie raced up the ladder and Carson moved to the back of the tree house, holding the dog over his head. “You’re going to have to jump for it.”
Charlie tried to snatch it back from his brother. It took a couple of tries, but finally his hand latched onto the pup’s leg. Unfortunately, Carson still had a good grip on the head.
They tugged back and forth, but it was too much for the already broken stuffie. With a loud RIP, the dog’s head came off in Carson’s hand. His eyes went huge.
Charlie stared at his decapitated mutt with his mouth open wide.
“You killed him!” Charlie squawked. Slowly, his shocked look turned to anger.
“Dad!” he screamed.
“No-no-no! Don’t tell Dad!” Carson whispered, quickly moving to block the ladder.
“Da-ad,” Charlie shouted, even louder.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Carson said. “Hang on. We can fix it.”
“No we can’t. He’s dead! Ya can’t fix dead!” Charlie stomped his foot. He tried to get past Carson, but he was still blocking Charlie’s way.
“I’ll only let you down, if you promise not to tell.” Carson’s eyes were wide as he pushed Charlie back away from the ladder.
Charlie glared at his brother. “Let me down. Now.”
“First promise not to tell,” Carson asked.
“Let me down.”
Charlie tried to push past him, one more time, but Carson was just too big. “Ok, fine.”
“Promise that you’ll never tell or rats and worms will eat your brains.”
Charlie sighed. “Fine. I promise not to tell or if I do, rats and worms will eat my brains. Now can I get down?”
It wasn’t until they were on the ground that Carson realized he wasn’t in the clear yet. “Wait, where are you going with the dog?” he asked, staring at the headless dog gripped in Charlie’s hand. “He’s dead. We have to bury him. Just like a real dog.”
“He is a real dog,” Charlie glared at him.
“Okay, so we have to bury him,” Carson said.
* * *
A boy emerged from the orchard, soaking wet and shivering.
“I thought you were sleeping,” the man said, sternly. “and where’s your coat?”
“I f-forgot it,” he sniffled.
The man shrugged off his jacket and wrapped it around the boy. “Does Grandma know you left the house?”
The boy shook his head. “She was sleeping in the chair. Did you find it?” the boy asked, shivering.
* * *
“What were you kids doing in there?” Eric asked. He had heard some noises coming from the shed and found Tom’s kids covered in splotches of dirt looking guilty.
“Um, we were digging,” Carson said, quickly putting the shovel he was carrying down.
Charlie stared at the ground.
“Where were you digging,” Eric asked. “You didn’t wreak any of the trees did you?”
“No, Uncle Eric. We were at the back fence.”
“By the pet cemetery?” Eric asked.
“Time to go boys!” Tom’s voice called from the driveway. Carson immediately took off running.
“Why were you at the pet cemetery?” Eric asked Charlie.
“My dog died,” he said quietly, before he took off after Carson.
“What?” Eric asked, staring after him, confused.
* * *
The man went back to shoveling, more carefully now that he was deeper. The boy crouched down, holding the flashlight and peering into the muddy grave.
“I think I see something!”
* * *
“Dad!” Dominic shouted from the top of the stairs. “I can’t find Spidey!” There was an edge of panic in his voice.
“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” Eric said, distracted. It had been a long day. The funeral and the gathering at the house after. Everyone wanted to hi and ask how he was. He was completely and utterly spent.
“It’s not here!” Dominic’s voice had become more high-pitched.
“Okay, where did you see him last?” Eric asked, picking up his son and sitting down on the top step.
“Were you playing with him downstairs with Charlie?”
Suddenly, his eyes opened wide and he clambered out of Eric’s lap and grabbed his hand and pulled him downstairs.
“We were playing superheros with his dog, but then it had an accident so we did surgery and stuck Spidey inside to make him better.”
“You put Spidey inside a dog?” Eric asked, his brain feeling fuzzy.
“It’s a stuffed dog. But I can’t find it,” he said, laying down on the carpet and peering under the couch.
Eric ran his hand through his hair and cringed, the pieces clicking into place. “Bud, Charlie probably took it home with him.”
“No! He promised to give him back!” His lower lip trembled.
“He probably just forgot,” he said, stroking Dominic’s back.
“No. Th-that’s, but I n-need him,” he said in gulping breaths. “I h-have to t-t-tell Mom I l-l-love her!” Eric held him as he sobbed. It was over an hour before he finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
* * *
Mark reached down into the hole and grabbed what looked like a sopping wet, brown, matted furball. As he pulled, the rest of the puppy, minus the head, came up.
“Is Spidy in there?’ Dominic asked, pushing his rain soaked hair out of eyes.
Rooting around in the wet, fibrous stuffing, Eric felt something hard and plastic.
“Spidey!” Dominic shouted, when Mark yanked it out. “You found him!”
Eric tossed the mutilated stuffie back into the hole and handed Spidey to Dominic.
“Just wait until I tell Mom what happened!” Dominic said, laying his head on Eric’s shoulder.