By Chloe Vilette
The old vet’s entire body flinched when he heard the bullet split through the air and hit some surface with a crack. His eyes widened in the green reflection of his antique truck. He’d first heard the sound when he’d killed a buck on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains with his daddy, and he’d hated hearing that sound in the pale paddy fields of Korea. It was the sound of bullet hitting skull, then brains.
He crept out of his backyard garage, his steel-toe boots scuffed against the concrete he’d laid out on the ground years ago. A tall picket fence surrounded the edges of his yard, and he shuffled over to it to get a peek at his neighbor’s side.
In between wooden cracks he could see Harold Summers, who was leaning down next to a kennel and had just started to drag a freshly dead lump of muscle and fur. A shotgun sat a few feet away from him in the dirt and behind him, next to a tree, was a hole that had just been dug out for the freshly dead.
A surge of confusion followed by rage ran through the old vet’s body. Memories came to him of when the dead lump of fur had been a puppy he’d found sick under his back porch where he’d smoke every evening. It was barely big enough to fill up both of his palms put together, and he knew immediately that the poor thing had been abandoned by its mother for being the runt of the litter. Harold Summers, his wife, and two daughters had just moved in next door. When the old vet had first found the dog, both little girls’ hearts melted at the sight of its big blue eyes peeking past its curly brown fur.
Curly. The girls had named it for its curly pelt that ran over its body, and they’d decided to help the old vet raise the animal back to health by bringing milk out after breakfast and table scraps out after dinner. They spent hours playing with the little pooch, and in return, the creature grew affectionate to both girls who treated it like their own pet. For about a year, the puppy grew larger, played with the girls, and sat next to the old vet in the evenings as he smoked and read the paper. But soon the day came where the porch step was too small for them both, and the old vet knew that it was time for his outdoor dog to find a home indoors. The wife and he didn’t have enough space to keep Curly inside, but he knew what family would love to have the dog as a permanent member of their family.
He gave Curly to the Summers family as a gift on their youngest daughter’s birthday. A red ribbon was wrapped around the dog’s neck like a bow on a Christmas present, and both little girls were filled to the brim with joy once they realized that they would be the sole owners of their furry friend.
That image of the girls, Harold Summers, and his wife smiling at the new addition to their family had always stuck out in the old vet’s memories. This only made him more bewildered. How could a man who’d been happy to see his children receive that dog have the heart to kill it? Curly would have been six years old if Harold had let him live. Why had Harold decided to take that dog’s life? If his family really couldn’t care for the little rascal anymore, the old vet would have happily taken it back.
The old vet sneaked over to his back porch and walked up those same steps where he and Curly had sat together a few years ago. His wife was sitting on a bench propped up against the wall and was scooping a spoonful of oatmeal into her thin mouth. She must have not heard the commotion that had just occurred, her hearing hadn’t been what it used to be. He walked up to her and, right as she greeted him with a welcoming smile, leaned in to tell her Harold Summer’s horrible secret. Her eyes widened once she’d heard the news, and her welcoming smile dropped into a concerned frown.
That evening he sat on the front porch to smoke after supper because he knew he couldn’t sit out back on the steps without thinking of Curly, who laid underground becoming colder by the second. He distracted his thoughts by watching the embers of his cigarette singe the tips of grass and wild onions that had made root on the ground around his front porch.
He flinched for the second time that day when he heard Harold Summer’s front door squeal open and slam shut. The old vet mentally berated himself. He should’ve remembered that Harold liked to go out front in the evenings. There had been countless times, when Curly still lived in the old vet’s backyard, where Harold would stand out front while he watched his two daughters run around playing with the dog.
Harold walked down his porch and across to where both he and the old vet’s yards met. He called out into the darkness to his neighbor.
“Got a spare smoke?”
The old vet shook his head. He had one, but he sure as hell wasn’t giving it to Harold.
“Shame. I sure am craving one right now.”
The old vet had only seen Harold smoke two times in the few years he’d known him. The first had been when his neighbor had feared they were going to lose their car because they struggled with the payments, and the second had been the day after Harold’s mother had died. Both times he’d paced back and forth in the front yard and smoked a whole carton he’d bought down the road. It was obvious that Harold Summers only smoked when something was poking at his nerves.
“I think I’ve found a cigarette you’ve dropped,” Harold said. He went to bend over and picked up a white stick off the ground. It was bent in half at an angle, but he took the end and bent it back to its original position.
“Could I have a light?” Harold asked.
The old vet reached behind him and picked up a lighter he had on the porch. It had almost no lighter fluid left in it, and he knew his neighbor would struggle to get a spark. He didn’t bother walking over to hand it away. Instead, he threw the old lighter toward Harold, who missed it by a long shot and had to bend down to get the lighter like he had the cigarette. It took him a solid minute to work the lighter. However, soon he got it to spark up and he held it to the end of his cigarette. Smoke started to pour out of the cigarette, and his face was covered in an orangish red heat.
“Curly died today,” Harold informed the old vet in between gasps filled with smoke, “I thought I’d tell you first out of the neighbors because you raised the little guy with the girls. He was so sick, poor Curly, and I should have told you. I’m so sorry. You should have gotten the chance to say goodbye.”
He could see that Harold was surprised at his lack of a reaction and response.
“The girls were so upset when they came home from school. Cried for an hour. I told them we could get a new dog. The farm down the road has a fresh litter of puppies.”
The old vet couldn’t stand conversation that didn’t tell the truth. He was filled with disgust, not because his neighbor had lied to him, but because he’d lied to his own children. He got up, squashed his cigarette on the porch banister, and went inside.
It was then he knew that Curly’s life meant as much to Harold Summers as that squashed cigarette on the ground meant to him.
Chloe Vilette is currently attending Shepherd University, where she is the arts and style editor for the school newspaper, The Picket, which is one of the oldest student-led publications in the United States. Her work has previously been published in Sans Merci, and her one-act play "Lambs at the Crossroads," was performed at the West Virginia State Thespian Festival. Follow her on Twitter @ViletteChloe.