The following is a true story, although it shouldn't be.
It was a beautiful, cloudless day and I was 12 years old the first time I looked true horror in the face. At 43 years old, I have since seen much that should eclipse that day in my mind; a friend overdosing on cocaine before my eyes, a man burned so badly in an industrial press that his flesh slid from his bones like well cooked chicken. I have lain awake at night remembering the explosions and lights from the firefighting that I saw from the lookout post of my naval ship during the Serbian/Bosnian conflict in the early nineties. Still, nothing will ever erase the horror that I saw that bright summer day, long ago, when my beloved pet dog, Bandit, died.
On that gorgeous summer day, I had no plans, no responsibilities other than the ones my parents dreamed up for me, and I had certainly never dealt with death in a close-up, personal manner before.
About 2 years earlier, we had gotten a mongrel mutt my father and I had affectionately named Bandit, after some old TV show dog that he vaguely resembled. It was one of the few times in my childhood that I can recall feeling close to my step-father as we both loved and cared for that little dog. Feeding him and the hours spent playing fetch in the yard with him and just hiking the hills around our home were some of the best times I can recall from my childhood. Bandit was my friend and I loved him, and my father, for all his faults, loved him too.
Needless to say we did not chain or restrict the dog’s movements about the neighborhood. No one in our neighborhood did that with their animals back then. As a consequence, there was not only a constant parade of animals running about, but sometimes these animals would stay gone for a couple of days at a time. It was seen as a natural consequence of allowing them to roam freely. So, when Bandit didn’t show up for two days in a row, we figured he’d simply gotten out and found something interesting and would return eventually, likely sporting the scars he’d gained in some late night brawl like badges of honor.
When a week passed and no one in the neighborhood had seen him, my mother and father began to voice the opinion that he had either: A. been picked up and taken home with someone or, to the pound as a stray, or B. had been killed by a car or another animal somewhere.
This obviously made my father and I both very sad and, looking back, I think we avoided the conversation about it simply to keep the hope alive that the dog would return. By the time two weeks had passed and the third was well underway, I had put aside my grief and had begun to move past the loss. Funny, looking back, how easy it was to do then. Children seem to be more resilient than adults when it comes to that sort of thing, taking news that would reduce some people to a mass of jelly the same way they took the news that supper was ready. Just information to absorb. I sometimes wish I could still do that. I also fervently wish that what we all had suspected had happened to Bandit would have been true. It certainly would have saved me years of nightmares and would have been a kinder fate to Bandit, no matter what else occurred.
You see, Bandit had not been picked up by someone, nor was he dead. About two and half weeks after his disappearance, my father was throwing horseshoes in the back yard and I was watching him from the picnic bench. Suddenly, Bandit came strolling into the backyard. He was covered in dried mud and bore the scars from some titanic battle across his back.
I shouted to my father “Dad look!”
My father turned and relief visibly washed over his face. He began to call to Bandit, and I stood, about to rush over and welcome our long lost family member back, when I noticed that Bandit's initial look of happiness was suddenly replaced by a mask of hatred. My Father and I both stopped at the same instant as the dog began to make a wretched, snarling sound deep in his breast. He suddenly bared his teeth and let loose with a volley of barks that seemed immense, echoing off the hills and trees in the woods. As we both watched, foam began to form and drip from Bandits jowls, looking for all the world like he’d just eaten a bar of soap. My father ordered me into the trailer and I obeyed quickly, fear welling up inside me that something was seriously wrong with my dog.
As you have probably guessed, Bandit had contracted rabies. Since that day, I have often returned to this subject, reading and absorbing what this terrible disease can do to a living organism. I believe that I have simply tried to make sense of what happened that day, to try and place it in some sort of perspective. No matter how often I read about the deterioration of the central nervous system, the constant inner pain balanced by the loss of sensation I can never really understand it. The disease the ravages the mind, turning a once docile creature into a near mindless killing machine, incapable of telling friend from foe. I truly feel that none of it comes close to describing how truly horrible this disease is. I’m not sure that I could face another animal in the late stages of rabies infection now, as a grown man, as easily as I did that day when I was 12.
Keep in mind, I was just a boy who knew nothing of the world and rabies was simply a word that I’d heard at school, not a reality that was currently wandering about, snarling at unseen enemies in my backyard. My father immediately went to his gun rack and grabbed the 12-gauge shotgun from it and jacked a round into the chamber.
In those days, you didn’t take your dog or cat or whatnot to the vet to put him down. That was hundreds of dollars and in rural Tennessee, you made do. Why spend $200 on a needle death when a $2.99 shell from the hardware store would be just as effective? So, instructing me to stay inside, my father went back outside with his shotgun, intending put down the lovable dog that once had slept at the foot of my bed.
I refused to even go to the window and began to cry, the grief of Bandit’s loss once more fresh and real to me. I sat staring at the TV, not really watching it but waiting for the sound that would indicate my pet was now a corpse in the yard. I had nearly given up and had begun wondering what my father was doing when it came; the sound of a shotgun splitting the air and reverberating down the creek valley that served as my neighborhood.
A few moments later, my father entered through the back door, tears glistening in his eyes and said “Son, get a trash bag and put the dog in it. We’ll bury him in the woods later.”
I gulped, knowing full well what a 12-gauge shotgun can do to an animal at close range. Being 12, I procrastinated for as long as I could, perhaps 5 minutes, before I was given the order again, this time the tone suggesting that my father was in no mood to argue with me. I grabbed a trash bag and steeled myself for the bloody aftermath.
I stepped out into the sunshine and cast about looking for the dog. My father had said he’d shot him next to the picnic table I’d been at earlier, so I walked over, expecting to see at the mangled bloody corpse of my friend. What I found was a large bloody spot in the grass but no dog.
I went back inside and told my father this.
He said “Well, he’s probably crawled into the woods to die. We’ll look for him in a bit.”
Feeling a not inconsiderable sense of relief, I turned my attention to the TV and tried to put the thought of searching for and burying the dog as far from my mind as possible.
It was about an hour later and I had decided to go outside and shoot basketball for a bit. I had nearly forgotten about the dog (amazing how easily a child can do this) and went to the backdoor and opened it.
The dog sat there on the back step calmly, tail wagging and its eyes locked with mine for the briefest of seconds.
I slammed the door shut, heart racing and fear suddenly blooming large in me. I let out a scream that brought my father immediately to me, his face one-part concern and three-parts contempt for the childish way I’d summoned him. I pointed at the door and trembling uncontrollably I said “Dad, the dog's not dead. He’s on the back step.”
My father looked at me for a moment, as if weighing the possibility that I was making it up, then glanced out the window. He uttered “Shit,” and turned around, the frown deep on his face.
“What’re you gonna do dad?” I asked, not really wanting an answer but feeling helpless not to ask.
“Shoot him again, I reckon.” Came my father’s curt reply.
“Oh.” I said meekly.
My father then went to the gun rack and began rummaging through the base, looking for a shell. After a few minutes, he began searching the kitchen drawers. 20 minutes later he gave up. It was at this point that an already horrible situation became surreal.
I understand now, as an adult, my father’s decision to do what he did next. Looking back, I can see that he was as scared as I was and no one makes good decisions at a time like that.
At the time, when my father came from the bedroom holding a ballpeen hammer, I was horrified. What was he going to do with that, I wondered? Again, instructing me to remain inside (not that you could have paid me enough to actually go out there), my father exited the front door, clearly expecting to come up behind the dog and get the drop on him.
A few moments later came the only cries I heard from the dog that day, cries full of pain and hate, punctuated by the wet ,flat sound of the hammer striking him. I covered my ears and tears fell once more, the images of what must be occurring outside on our back step welling unbidden in my mind. A minute or an hour later ( to this day I have no idea how long this went on) my father stood before me, his face white and drained, making a sharp contrast to the bright speckles of blood scattered across his forehead and cheeks. I had never seen another human being look so, let alone my father, and my already screaming nerves cranked up the concerto another notch.
Shaking, my father laid the bloody hammer on the counter, paying no attention to the crimson stain that began to immediately spread from it on the harsh white Formica. Turning to me he spoke, his voice cracking and halting, “Get a trash bag, son, and put the dog in it.”
This time there was to be no waiting, no attempts to get out of the grisly chore. I fully expected to vomit as I slowly opened the back door. Instead, I saw an empty stoop, the bottom two steps bright red and glistening in the sunlight. The dog was nowhere to be seen. I closed the door and turned to my father, expecting to be berated for trying to shirk my duty and told him, “Dad, the dogs not dead. He’s gone”
The look of shock that crossed my father’s face is one I will never forget. He strode to the door and flung it open. He stood staring down at the steps for a moment, as if unable to comprehend what was happening. Turning to me, he exclaimed, “Come on, we’ve got to find him.”
As I mentioned earlier, we lived in a trailer. As a consequence, it was necessary to wrap the water pipes underneath the trailer in the winter with heat tape to keep them from freezing. This meant that a piece of the underpinning, or skirt, of the trailer was almost always missing. As we searched the woods immediately behind the house, (it seems to me now that we should have been able to follow a blood trail but, considering all that had happened, perhaps my father and I can be forgiven for not thinking of it right then) it occurred to me that the dog could be underneath the trailer.
I approached the trailer with caution, my 12-year-old brain already convinced that Bandit was possessed by a demon. I slowly peeked around the edge of the skirt and there, in the low gloom, was my dog, maybe five feet underneath the trailer. His back was to me and he sat ramrod straight on his haunches, his tail swishing back and forth, stirring up dust in small clouds at the end of each swing. He made no sound and, for me, that seemed to be scarier than if he’d been lying on his side, gasping his last breath and moaning. I quickly (and quietly) backed away and got my father’s attention.
“He’s underneath the trailer.” I said, hoping for my involvement in the whole affair to be ended. Dogs’ that wouldn’t die after being shot at point blank range and being beaten with a hammer were definitely not something that I was prepared to handle. My hopes were dashed with my father’s next words.
“Son, go to every neighbor until you can find someone with a 12-gauge shotgun shell.” He looked at the trailer and I saw him visibly swallow. “Do it fast son.”
“OK dad.” I said, and quickly began roaming the street, knocking on every door I saw. I think it was the fourth or fifth house before I got someone willing to listen to me and my explanation of why I needed the shell. Moments later I was sprinting back to my home, clutching the small green shell in my fist as tight as I could, as if it would disappear if I relaxed and my father would have to get the hammer again. When I returned, I handed the shell to my father and he the spoke the words that have haunted me to this day.
“Son, here’s what I want you to do.”
Now see it. See this small, frail child, barely old enough to understand what is happening. See him approach the opening to the underside of the rickety old trailer, the darkened doorway now seeming like the gates to hell. Fear wells up as he kneels in the dirt, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Soon, he can see the dog clearly, it’s mottled brown back facing him, tail swinging back and forth like a malignant metronome. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.
In his mind, he is hearing his father’s words repeating over and over… “Crawl up behind him, grab his tail and throw him out, and I’ll shoot him.”
Terror grips the child’s heart like a vice, not understanding why his father doesn’t call another adult to come over and do this, the knowledge that in a few moments, his father would be firing a buckshot round within 4 feet of him causing a nauseous feeling in his stomach.
The child inches forward, trembling at the thought of approaching what appears to be a monster from a scary book he sometimes likes to read. No sound emanates from the dog except for a wet, wheezing sound that sends shivers down the boy's spine. He slides as far to the right as he can, praying that when the moment comes, he is strong enough to fling the dog clear of the trailer and himself before his father starts shooting.
He trembles a few short feet behind the dog, his hand inching slowly towards the still moving tail. As he reaches forward, the tail ever so slightly brushes his hand and the dog turns to stare at him.
The right eye is gone, a mass of ropy nerve and tissue hanging from the blank socket, looking like nothing else so much as wet spaghetti. The skin is peeled and hangs from it's head like paper-mache. The underlying muscle of the head glistens in the meager light, and here and there are flaps of tissue hanging from the dogs skull. The jaw line on the right side is deformed and while some teeth are missing, there are still plenty of them left, razor sharp and bloody. A clear liquid drains from the mouth, mixing with the steadily dripping blood to pool at the dog’s feet. Lower, the left side of the ribcage is exposed, a gaping hole that occasionally emits a small fountain of blood. In the hole, he can see what is surely the dogs heart, pumping at a steady pace and the child realizes that the blood sprays are timed to it. The left eye of the dog centers on him and in it he can see no mercy, no love , only hate, pain and insanity. It is bloodshot and ringed in yellow. Blood pours from the dog’s mouth as it opens ever so slightly and a low growl issues forth.
Terror blinds the child and he scampers from underneath the trailer, screaming at the top of his lungs. His father is there, grasping his shoulders and trying to hold the 68 pounds of pure panic the boy has become. “No, no, no” the boy cries, incapable of vocalizing anything more. It will be weeks before he can sleep without awakening in the middle of the night, stifling a scream It will be months before the nightmares subside, nightmares in which the dog walks slowly towards the boy, eyes glowing red and and hatred gleaming in them, months before the boy can bring himself to even approach the opening to the belly of the trailer and the boy makes a vow which will not be broken for nearly 20 years. No more dogs. Ever.
My father ended up killing the dog by crawling under there himself and setting the butt of the gun in the dirt and placing the barrel right at his chest. The blast tore the dog in half and finally put an end to the horror that day. It also put several holes in the floor of my bedroom (a fact my father was adamant was my fault.) I’m not sure if the thought of what would have happened to me, had I actually done as he asked and he missed, ever crossed his mind. It was many years before I was able to look at that day objectively and see he was only doing the best he could given the circumstances and what he had to work with. My father isn't a bad man, just a product of the times and the place in which he lived.
I still see Bandit in my dreams sometimes. In it, I am a boy again and I am looking down our old driveway when he appears. I run to him, shouting for joy that my friend has returned, only to stop as I see his mangled body, the hole in his chest and the head that looked fine from one side and a nightmare from the depths of hell on the other. As I look at him, the dog’s eyes begin to glow and I know this is my punishment, trapped forever with a hell hound that used to be my friend. I wake in a cold sweat from these dreams and it is usually long before sleep comes again. At least that is the only lingering effect of that long ago day, when I was 12, and my dog died.
I hope you enjoyed this story. Yes, it's messed up and yes it all really happened. Let me know what you all think