My alarm clock goes off unmercifully loud in my ear. I roll over and slap my hand on the snooze button and the sunlight blinds me. I sit up and rub my eyes, purple and green spots form behind my closed lids. On my floor, in his usual spot, is my dog, Chester. His golden fur is only brighter in the sun that spills onto the floor.
“Hey boy,” I say, leaning down to scratch his head.
He responds by rolling over toward my bed and grumbles. He picks up his head and looks up at me. He blinks his old, crusty eyes a few times before letting out a sigh.
Just then, I hear a series of loud bangs on my weak, wooden door. The last bang flings the door open.
“Tyler,” my stepdad, Tom, shouts. “Get your ass outta bed!” He walks toward the window and slaps the side of my head before tugging the blinds open all the way. I squint against the fresh morning light.
“I’m awake, aren’t I?” I retort, running my hand through my coarse, sand-colored hair. Tom swings around and looks me dead in my green orbs.
“Don’t fuckin’ sass me, boy.” He hisses, spitting in my face. He walks back into the doorway. “Now, today’s the day y’go and get rid’o that damn mutt.”
“Don’t talk like that in front of him.” I say as I hop out of bed and onto the ground where Chester is now sitting upright. He perks his ears up and looks at me. I scratch his head again. “He’s not some dumb animal. He knows what you’re saying. He understands you.”
“The hell he does.” Tom scoffs and walks out, down the hall. “Git, to’t, boy!” I hear him yell.
I look down at Chester again. He’s got this look in his eyes; he understands what I’ve been told to do. I don’t want to do it, and he understands that too. He understands that Tom is just some asshole my mom married out of loneliness when my dad died four years ago. Chester and I see how Tom treats mom, but what can we do? He’s just an old dog and I’m just a twenty year old college drop out.
Tom had been running our lives since about a year after my dad died. My dad had supported me and wanted me to go to college. He knew how much Chester meant to me. Tom was the one who made me come home after a year of school and help with the property around the house. Sixteen acres ain’t gon’ take care’a itself, boy! That was his excuse.
Once Chester turned twelve, he started having problems with his hips. Tom only saw him as a nuisance. Chester had a hard time walking up and down the stairs and he couldn’t keep control of the sheep and goats like he used to. Since he couldn’t be of help around the house anymore, Tom saw no need to keep him around; especially at his age. Of course, my mom had nothing to say about the matter. If Tom said something was the right thing to do, mom never questioned it.
So, today was the day. I had to take my best friend out to the apple orchard just outside of town and shoot him.
“C’mon there, boy!” I hear Tom call up the stairs. “Yer wastin’ daylight!”
Chester barks his loud, deep bark and paws at my leg. I find myself standing in front of the mirror buttoning a green plaid shirt. I look down at Chester, and he gets up to walk towards me. He wobbles a bit, but he nuzzles his nose and head against my thigh. I scratch his head and kneel down in front of him. We look at each other for a moment while I scratch behind his ears and under his chin. He licks my face and I can’t help but feel a lump forming in my throat.
I stand up abruptly and walk to the door.
“C’mon, Chester,” I say as happily as I can manage. Chester gets up and wags his tail with the same effort it takes for me to smile. He follows me out the door and we go downstairs.
Walking down the staircase, I keep a hand near his back in case he loses his balance, but he makes it down into the kitchen with some unsteady ease.
Mom is sitting reading a newspaper spread all over a small table pushed off to one side of the kitchen. Her wavy blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail. A lit cigarette hangs between two bony fingers. She never smoked a day in her life before she met Tom.
“Morning, boys,” she says without looking up. Tom brings her a cup of black coffee, kisses the top of her head and walks towards the side door. I didn’t fail to notice the handgun and holster hanging from his belt. I wince as I see it and sit down at the table, grabbing my boots from the corner.
“C’mon there, Chester,” He calls, opening the door for Chester to follow him outside. Chester responds by plopping himself firmly onto the floor next to me. I laugh under my breath and mom shoots me a look that I ignore. Tom shows his teeth in annoyance as he growls with frustration. He calls him again, but Chester doesn’t move. I watch from my seat at the kitchen table as I tie my shoes. Chester barks deep and loud, but doesn’t move an inch.
Tom, frustrated as all hell, stomps over to Chester, grabs him by the collar and shoves him out the door. It slams, almost catching his tail. I leap up from my seat and go for the door.
“You don’t fucking treat my dog that way, Tom.” I bark at him. Tom opens his mouth to snap back at me, but I continue, growing in anger. “I’m doing what you’re telling me to do. I’m not begging you to let him stay because I know there’s no use arguing with you.” I grab my tan jacket from the rack near the door and slip it on. “And there’s no use in trying to change your mind either, mom. He’s got you so brainwashed, you wouldn’t even recognize your own reflection.”
Just then, mom gets up brusquely, her coffee cup hitting the table with a ceramic clank.
“Stop making a scene, Tyler,” she hollers. She looks at me, fire burning in her once warm, chocolate eyes. “Go on. Get,” she orders hoarsely. I leave and slam the door behind me without another word.
I call for Chester as I grab the keys to my blue Jeep Wrangler from my jacket pocket. My folding pocket knife comes tumbling out of my jacket as I grab my keys. I quickly pick it up and shove it into my jacket again, making sure no one saw.
Chester comes trotting up to me from the backyard. I open the passenger door for him and he looks up at the seat and then to me. He whimpers quietly, looking between the seat and me again. I sigh and lift him up into the passenger seat, but before I close the door, he licks my face and wags his tail.
“Alright, enough of that,” I say as I wipe my cheek.
The ride to the orchard isn’t too far. Chester has his head out the window the entire ride there, and I hear him inhale deeply over and over when we both start to smell the apples.
I pull the Jeep up to an empty patch of grass near one of the rows far from the entrance. I grab Chester’s leash from the backseat and my duffle bag from the trunk. I open the bag and feel around inside a few times to make sure I have what I need.
A tall, lanky guy is leaning up against a tree one row over. He’s got his hands in his pockets and looks around a few times before walking toward my car. As he comes closer, I distinguish his face from beneath his baseball cap. Red, straw-like hair pokes out from beneath his cap, and freckles dot his entire face. He’s wearing a blue denim shirt that matches his jeans. When he reached the hood of my Jeep, Chester lets out a deep bark from his seat on the passenger side.
“You’re looking extra ginge today, Sam,” I say as I close the trunk and come around the side of the Jeep.
“Howdy, Chester,” Sam says, reaching in through the window of the car and ruffling Chester’s fur. “You really goin’ through with this, Ty?” Sam places a firm hand on my shoulder and ruffles my hair.
“Eehhh,” I let out an unsure sound as I open the passenger door and lift Chester out of the car. I clip Chester’s leash on and adjust the duffle bag strap on my shoulder. Sam closes the door of my car and follows as I start to walk down one of the rows of apple trees.
“There’s no point in talking to Tom about this… So I figured I’d do what he tells me,” I explain to Sam. Sampson, Sam for short, has been one of my closer friends since I moved back into town after Tom pulled me out of school. He’s a real hick, though not as much as Tom. He wasn’t too bright; he didn’t understand most things besides farming, but he understood the inhumane way Tom treated my family.
“And your ma’ ain’t budging neither, huh?” Sam asked. He kicked along an apple as we walked.
“No,” I say gravely. “She so far gone…” I let the words hang in the air. Chester barked as he looked back at us from the corner of his eye. I understood, though I don’t know if Sam did.
We kept walking until my Jeep was small enough to look like a bright blue apple on a tree. I led Chester over to a tree and tied his leash around one of the low branches securely. He sat beneath the tree and waited patiently.
I dropped my duffle bag and began rummaging through it. I pulled out a small box and put it on the ground next to me. Then, carefully, I lifted Tom’s 12-gague shotgun out of the bag.
Sam looked around. “Right here?” He asked warily.
I didn’t respond. I felt the lump in my throat again. I laid the gun on my lap and opened the small box, pulling shells from it and loading them into the gun.
When I had set the box back into my duffle, I rose to my feet and took a few steps back, lining myself up with where Chester was tied to the tree. I tried my hardest to breath normally and stay calm. Sam had gotten the point not to say anything; at least he understood that much.
I took aim, preparing to squeeze the trigger and brace myself for the kickback of the gun. The barrel of the shotgun was fixed right at Chester’s head, but as I took a final deep breath, I exhaled and pointed the gun up and to the left and fired.
The shot rang out through the orchard, causing birds upon birds to flee from the higher trees. When I looked again, Chester sat right where he was. Sam let out a low whistle.
“Damn,” Sam said. “The way that dog trusts you… I don’t think my ma even trusts me that much.”
“Good boy,” I said, laying the gun on my duffle and jogging over to Chester. He got up and wagged his tail in response. He barked twice and lightly jumped on his front paws. I reached him and pulled my knife from my pocket. I cut the leash near the base of Chester’s collar, and then slipped the collar off his neck.
“Go on, boy,” I said to him, scratching his head the way I always do. “I’ll come back for you after sunset. You just go find someplace to hide and I’ll come and call you.”
Chester looked at me questioningly, cocking his head to one side and then nuzzling his head under my chin. He whimpered quietly.
“It’s okay, boy.” I said, reassuringly. “I’ll come back for you and we’ll get outta here. I promise.” I scratched his head again before standing and nudging him lightly with my leg. “Go on. It’s okay.”
He looked up at me again and barked twice before trotting away into the woods.
I grabbed Chester’s collar and turned back to face Sam. I packed up my duffle and swung it over one shoulder. He smiled at me; put his arm around my shoulders and we walked back to my little blue spec of a Jeep. I held Chester’s collar clutched tightly in my fist.