I fall into the worn threads of my old hammock and swing, staring skyward through crooked branches of pine and hemlock trees.
My breathing slows as I absorb the familiarities – my hammock, the evergreen trees tall like gentle, swaying giants. The whooshing of nearby cars.
My little black dog perches in the lawn and locks his eyes with mine. He isn’t really here, having died nine months ago, but I’ve spotted his scrawny frame on several occasions since. It’s usually my dreams that are riddled with his presence, but sometimes he breaks through my subconscious like a shadow into the day.
Last year, on May 7, a Wednesday – the day I turned 20 – I took the 3:04 p.m. train to Exton, my hometown.
I took the 3:04 to Exton to run my hands over my dead dog’s body.
I don’t know why I went home to see him, except maybe to better digest the fact that the first phone call of my day, which came at 2 p.m., was not to wish me a happy birthday, but to tell me that my dog had been hit by a car in the night.
My father discovered him in the morning, lying in the woods beside Route 113, the river of cars that has always marked my house.
When I saw my dog limp on a white sheet in the backseat of my mother’s car, I almost expected his fur to prickle my palms when I touched him, to sting. But it was still soft, just colder, and I noticed mainly how still his body looked when his stomach failed to rise and fall and the trail of crusty, crimson red that dribbled from his mouth and stained the whites of his eyes.
The dreams started that night. Murky vignettes, stories looping like grainy rolls of film, projecting the infinite scenarios in which his death panned out.
It took me a while to drive. At night, my foot jumped to the brakes anytime so much as a leaf drifted from the darkness into the gold glow of my headlights. Though I tried to suppress them, I even relayed scenarios in which I hit my dog.
For whatever reason, some part of my psyche latches tightly to the death of my dog. When my mind rattles during the day, my dreams worsen at night.
To compensate for the empty feel my house took on without my dog’s presence, I decided to apply to work at a small, family-run dog shelter near my house. I met Greg, the business manager and the boss’ son, on my first day of work.
Greg, only a couple years older than me, was a soccer player, tall and lean and somewhat handsome. But the first thing I noticed about Greg wasn’t any of these things – it was that he carried the awful habit of constantly biting his nails.
On my second day of work, I found out why. I met Tom, Greg’s father and my boss, who never formally introduced himself to me. Tom’s presence in the shelter was strong and cold – on my first day and every day of work, he would spew long chains of harsh words over anything and everything and nothing at all. He was short, but burly and fiery. Greg chewed his nails with a special fury when his father was around.
Weeks into my job, I discovered I was hired from a pool of potential employees particularly because, Greg said, I wasn’t afraid of breaking up fights between dogs. Not between Pomeranians, Pugs or Malteses, but between pit bulls, Dobermans, German Shepherds and Rottweilers. And I did.
The fights escalated. My dreams worsened. I would come home after work longing for the comfort of my own timid dog, but instead was confronted late at night by visions of dogs fighting, foam flying, teeth thrashing.
A brawny rescue pit bull named Shadow who, by the indication of many scars, had been used for fighting in the past, snapped one Friday morning and attacked our boss throat-first. While working with Greg in the week before the attack, I had broken up fights between Shadow and other dogs – fights that were completely unprovoked, from which dogs escaped with bloody noses and swollen eyes.
Out of fear of his father’s rage, Greg had neglected to tell anyone of the fights – until, of course, Shadow trapped and nearly killed his father. Still, he begged me not to discuss the signs we saw earlier in the week – the signs I thought everyone was aware of.
I left the shelter shortly after, but the dreams remained. Good did come out of working there – I met a group of caring people who, as loyal dog lovers, understood the pain of my loss. We all had our own reasons for being there, and by the time I left, I knew it wasn’t just the dogs that needed a little help.
Nine months after my dog’s death and six months after I quit the shelter, I stand up from my hammock and walk over to the area of my lawn where I thought I had seen my dog, Hero. He is gone. The yard is empty and has been all along.
I walk a few steps to where some sort of impression lies in the mud. I think of my dreams and Greg’s stubby nails and the fresh welts I saw on Tom’s face, chest and arms after the attack, the wounds that made it even harder to hold his eye contact. I imagine the scar in the soil before me is a paw print, lingering. I step into the dirt and smooth the earth.
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Some names in this essay have been changed.