by Brian Sutton
When he hears their six-year-old daughter Suzi screaming, Ross’ first thought is goddamn dog.
As he whirls to see what the trouble is, his accusing glance lights momentarily on Laura. I didn’t want to bring the dog along today, his glance says. Hell, I never wanted the dog in the first place.
He had been mystified when Laura, shortly after becoming pregnant with what will soon be their second child, had fixated on the notion of rescuing a one-year-old male pit bull, frightened of people because of some unspecified mistreatment by the previous owners.
‘A pit bull?’ Ross had said. ‘Young, male? That’s been abused? Why not just bring home a time bomb?’
‘He’s a good dog,’ Laura had replied. ‘Never mind the breed. You’re, like, racial profiling.’ She had paused and then added, ‘It figures.’
Ross wasn’t about to get drawn into that discussion. Instead he had said, ‘And then there’s the time and energy. And the money. We already got another child coming.’
‘If we can welcome one new family member, we can welcome two.’
‘Dogs ain’t family. Especially pits.’
But he knew that Laura, who had worked as a veterinarian’s assistant before Suzi’s birth, possessed almost a sixth sense about dogs. So in the end he had given in. He had even kept quiet when Laura indulged the dog, playing with him in the back yard for what seemed like hours on end. She would toss a Frisbee, and the dog would sprint after it, leap, and catch it in midair. The dog would bring it back, and they would play tug of war. With one end of the Frisbee in his mouth, the dog would shake his head back and forth—violently, it seemed to Ross—until Laura lost her grip on the Frisbee or, more often, staggered and fell. Then the dog was instantly on top of her, his paws holding her arms down as if he were a wrestler. All the while the dog growled with seeming ferocity. The first time Ross observed this he was ready to get his rifle, until he noticed Laura was laughing.
It was all in play. Once the dog had pinned Laura, he would lick her face and let her up, tail wagging, and they would begin the sequence over again.
When Laura saw how astonishingly fast the dog was, she named him Speedo. But mostly she called him Little Pittie.
And Ross had to admit the dog hadn’t shown an ounce of genuine aggression. True, he shied away from Ross, but he had bonded with Laura instantly. Most of all, he was impeccably gentle, even protective, around Suzi.
Besides, Ross had reminded himself, lately he had placated Laura on lots more than just the pit bull issue. Her pregnancy, a difficult one, was taking its toll on her, so he’d been appeasing her, he thought, in all sorts of ways.
How they’re spending this particular Sunday afternoon, for instance. He’d had no desire to go on a picnic, definitely hadn’t wanted to bring the dog along. But anything to keep the house peaceful.
So there he is, making the best of it, trying to tune out the hum of speeding traffic from the highway and the teenage couple at the nearby table, picnicking on McDonald’s takeout while they display too much public affection and stream their music too loudly. And trying to tune out his irritation at Laura for choosing this place, too popular with annoying teenagers, too far from the woods, too close to the highway.
She had chosen it, he knows, because this park allows dogs off leash. One more irritation. Granted, the dog has proved to be safe around the house, but can the dog handle noisy strangers in an unfamiliar setting? And what will those strangers think of him for letting a pit bull run loose?
So when he hears his daughter scream, his terror for her safety coexists with resentment toward Laura. And the goddamn dog.
But when his eyes find his daughter, the dog isn’t anywhere near. Instead, Suzi is running in a rambling zigzag path, hands waving wildly above her head. Far behind her, near the edge of the woods, the dog looks up in surprise, just like Ross.
As Suzi careens nearer, Ross can make out grainy brown specks weaving back and forth above her head. Then one of the specks seems to attach itself to her neck. A second or two later she slaps at her neck and shrieks louder than before.
Wasps. Twenty or more, swarming around her. She must’ve accidentally bumped their nest, or perhaps poked it with a stick, too young to understand the danger.
Suzi shrieks again, higher-pitched this time, and speeds off in a new direction. Away from the woods, and diagonally away from Ross and Laura.
And toward the highway.
Ross scrambles to his feet and runs, ignoring the aches and stiffness of early middle age. Laura had risen in the same instant, but Ross knows her pregnancy will slow her down. It’s up to him. He had been a decent athlete in high school, but that was two decades ago. The adrenaline surge can’t offset the damage time has wreaked on his body. And Suzi has a pretty good head start.
He calls to her as he runs but she doesn’t respond, probably lost in her private world of panic. And she’s speeding up. The teenagers, who evidently hadn’t heard her shrieks over their music and their lust, look up with surprise as she passes.
On the highway, cars and trucks rocket past with a whoosh, no opening in sight. Suzi is almost to the shoulder of the road.
Although he’s not sure he’s gotten close enough, Ross must try for a flying tackle. He plants both feet to push off. But his right foot skids on a Big Mac wrapper, spoiling his takeoff. He screams as he flies through the air, falling short, outstretched fingers closing on nothing.
At the same time, out of the corner of his eye he sees a speed-blurred brown form flash past him and leap, a split second after he himself had done so.
The jolt of landing knocks the wind out of him and forces him to close his eyes for a moment. When he opens them he has to squint through dust kicked up by his impact and by the traffic only a few yards ahead.
Suzi, legs still churning, looks down, clearly bewildered that she’s no longer moving forward. Behind her, the dog clutches her shirttail in his teeth and tugs backward, legs dug in for traction. His low growl warns danger, danger.
The dog lets go momentarily, and Suzi tries to run. But the dog’s jaws clamp down again, getting a stronger grip on the fabric, his teeth within a fraction of an inch of her back.
Now the dog begins shaking his head back and forth. With each shake, the girl staggers and the dog’s growls reflexively grow louder. Ross thinks he might hear fabric ripping, and he silently prays that the shirt doesn’t tear loose.
But the fabric holds, the dog shakes his head even harder, and Suzi stumbles and falls into the cinders and pebbles just off the shoulder of the road. Immediately the dog is on top of her, front paws finding her forearms and pinning them down. A couple of wasps land on the dog’s flank, but he ignores whatever they’re doing.
Ross struggles onto all fours, having to take his eyes off Suzi and the dog to do so. He is vaguely aware of another form, taller and more awkward than the previous one, rushing past. His head spins and the ground seems to tilt at crazy angles, but he pushes off and stands upright, staggering a little.
Then he hears a muffled thud followed by a shrill yelp, a sharp squeal of automobile brakes, and a thump. Suzi begins screaming again, louder still, her wails joined by those of Laura, just now arriving to scoop Suzi into her arms. The swarm of wasps heads back toward the woods.
A step or two past Suzi and Laura, just short of the highway, stands the teenage boy from the picnic table, breathing heavily and grinning. His girlfriend approaches, gazing up at him worshipfully.
Behind the boy there is a temporary lull in traffic. On the pavement something that Ross at first thinks is a brown plastic bag, almost shapeless, oozes toward them as if drifting in the breeze.
The teenage boy, evidently jacked up with ego and excitement, is speaking rapidly, his voice a runaway train. ‘Saw the girl runnin’ from the dog, headin’ for the highway,’ he says breathlessly, perhaps directing the words toward his girlfriend, perhaps toward Laura. ‘Then it catches her and pulls her over and, like, pins her down. You could tell it was gonna totally rip her apart. And I hadda be careful—I mean, it was a pit bull! But it was off balance from holdin’ her down that way, so I, like—’ He leans back to demonstrate a half-shove, half-kick, with his foot.
Looking back at the highway, Ross sees, and his stomach goes numb. The dog, his legs and hindquarters crushed and mangled, is dragging himself by his front paws toward Suzi and Laura.
‘Lucky I got there in time,’ the boy continues. Then he looks at Ross. ‘But man, who lets that kind of dog run loose?’
Ross hears a horn and watches a car swerve to avoid the slithering dog. A woman in the passenger seat stares, then covers her eyes and seems to moan soundlessly, the car windows sealing off her voice.
Seeing another break in traffic, Ross scurries onto the highway to help the dog. But he stops when he hears the anguished yowl as he touches the hindquarters. Hands bloodied, he rushes over to where his wife clutches their daughter, who is wailing ‘Speedo!’ over and over.
The dog manages to reach them a few seconds later. Laura reaches down to scratch him under the chin, bloodying her own hand. ‘Good boy,’ she whispers.
The teenage boy has backed away, shaking his head. Then he runs off. The girl follows, her gaze still on the boy, her expression no longer worshipful.
Ross and Laura embrace, oblivious to the blood they’re smearing on one another’s clothes. With one arm apiece they hold each other tightly, while with the other they cradle Suzi between them.
After they’ve held each other long enough, they bend over to examine their daughter for stings.
‘Not as bad as I thought,’ Ross says.
‘No, Laura replies. ‘She’ll be okay.’ Then she kneels beside the dog, now curled at Suzi’s feet. ‘Well?’ she says, looking up at her husband.
Ross has his cell phone out. ‘The vet’s is closed today,’ he says. ‘But there’s an animal emergency center open on Woodbridge. Ten-minute drive.’
‘But that’ll cost—’
Then he is running again, this time toward their SUV. As he drives it out of the lot and onto the grass, he can see Laura rushing back to their picnic table and then returning, holding the old blanket they had used for a tablecloth in one arm, Suzi in the other. The girl’s head droops—she has fallen asleep, evidently exhausted by what has taken place.
By the time Ross pulls up, Laura has spread the picnic blanket next to the dog, Suzi asleep on the edge of it. ‘A stretcher would be better, but this’ll do,’ Laura says.
The dog lies still, panting rapidly, occasionally emitting a sound unlike anything Ross has ever heard before.
Ross picks up their daughter and straps her into her car seat, then opens the SUV’s rear hatch. ‘You should maybe ride beside him,’ he says. ‘To hold him steady.’
‘Sure. But I need to check something first.’
‘You.’ She looks at him closely. ‘We don’t have to do this.’
‘The emergency center will cost a fortune,’ she says. ‘And he might die anyway. And even if he doesn’t, he’ll probably never—’
‘I get it.’
‘Okay. But like you said, with the baby coming, how much time and attention and money can we spare?’ She takes a deep breath. ‘So when we get there, it’s okay, I’ll understand if we just tell them to—’
‘You don’t do that to family.’
‘But you said—’
‘I know what I said.’ After a pause he adds, ‘It’s possible I was wrong. Just this once.’
She appears to exhale, then touches his arm lightly. For a moment it seems they might embrace again. But the dog is shivering, his breath uneven, his gums pale.
‘We better hurry,’ Laura says. She looks at Ross again. ‘He’ll need support. To keep him from bending.’
‘Right. So if we both lift together—’
She nods agreement. ‘We put him on the blanket,’ she says. ‘Then we keep the blanket firm when we lift. Pull on the corners to keep it taut. Once we’re in the SUV I can maybe put the corners over him, try to keep him warm.’
Ross almost smiles, recognizing what a damn good veterinarian’s assistant his wife had been. ‘On three,’ he says, bending over the dog.
As he begins counting, he reminds himself to be gentle while providing firm support. Gentle has never been his strong suit. Neither has admitting mistakes. But he needs to do things differently now. For compassion. Decency. A little pity.
Brian Sutton’s work has appeared in Fictive Dream, The Journal, Crack the Spine, Seventeen, and elsewhere. Four of his plays have been produced, including one which had a successful run on 42nd Street in New York and has been performed at the high school, college, community-theatre, and professional levels. As a student at The University of Michigan he won three Hopwood Awards for creative writing. He has volunteered for years at an animal shelter.