Michael sat down in the middle of the road and began to cry. It was not for any of the typical reasons that a boy would cry; he had not fallen, skinned his knee, or gotten lost on the road. No, Michael Welsh was crying because at the very end of the dusty road, just close enough for him to be left unable to refuse it as reality, lay his dog, Chase - dead.
Chase was the only dog Michael had ever known. As brown as a caramel chew, and nearly as soft. He had become an old dog, a sleepy dog, until that evening when some beaconing shone through and his laziness was left in a pile of dust at the foot of the porch steps typically used for long summer naps. Chase had sprinted as fast and as far as his legs would take him - which was here, on this road at twilight. There were no markings anywhere on his body, no signs of a violent end. Chase had simply stopped.
Chase was so named because he’d had a habit of tracking squirrels for miles, often gone for hours, only to return empty handed but in the greatest spirits a dog could be. He’d probably have been named Hunter had he actually managed to apprehend even one. He’d been a chaser, runner, and grinner for so many long days - as long as Michael could remember. It was roughly six months prior that Chase had resigned himself to sit, nap, and laze.
There were no cars, no sounds of civilized noise, only the hefty sobs of an adolescent boy and the cricket songs ushering in the evening, sweeping this sad scene into quiet hours previously reserved for supper, sitting together on the couch, and peaceful sleeping. Tonight, these hours were reserved for crying.
“She may be young, but she’s not stupid,” Michael’s mother, Janice, spoke sharply to her husband, Phil, “she is going to notice that her dog is gone sooner or later, and it isn’t like we can just replace him by morning.”
They were discussing the matter of breaking the news to August, Michael’s younger sister. She was just old enough to be incredibly attached to anything around her - Chase especially.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right; but, there’s no sense in telling her right before bed. We can tell her tomorrow before we go into town. Let her and Michael decide if they’d like a new dog.” Phil sturdily responded.
The next morning began with more crying, this time from August, as she walked about the kitchen tugging on pant legs and loudly, tearfully, wondering why her dog had gone to heaven. Not one for all of the fuss of illusionment in a young girl, Phil had bluntly broken the news to August as he woke her for breakfast. August, only four years old, was so upset she could not even enjoy her blueberry “Eggo” waffles and scrambled eggs (her favorite breakfast, likely prepared to help remedy the damage).
“Sweetheart, all dogs go to heaven eventually. And they all leave before we do--” Janice was interrupted by a screamed “But WHYYY!” from August. “Because, dogs are good, and love from the moment they step foot on Earth. So, they are accepted into dog heaven as soon as they have loved their family the best they can,” continued Janice, shooting an exasperated look at her husband, expecting some assistance as he scowled into his scrambled eggs.
Shifting in his seat slightly, Phil focused on his daughter. “Chase was old, August. Old dogs die.” And there it was, just the help Janice had been hoping to avoid. August threw herself onto the floor and wailed, screaming and kicking until she was swept up into her exasperated mother’s arms and taken from the room. The rest of breakfast was spent in silence.
“You could make a living doing that kind of thing,” Janice sarcastically sneered from the passenger seat, still fuming about the how breakfast had unfolded. “I suppose I could, but I’d never really given it much thought,” Phil retorted, displaying his single-faceted, dry wit in full form. The conversation in the front of the family car was a bumpy as the country road leading them into the small town of Rockville, Pennsylvania where they would buy groceries, and talk to all of the folks around town - something Phil and Janice enjoyed far more than they cared to admit.
Michael stared out the window at the harsh rocky cliffs, white boulders, and strong, precariously placed trees that dominated the landscape for which the town had been named. As the main road met the Long Bridge that would take them into town, a flash of sunlight emanated from the mountainous horizon. The craggy, stoned giants that had dominated his vision parted to reveal an expanse of autumn pine and oak, interrupted only by the scar of an old, abandoned quarry. Michael breathed in that expanse, and all claustrophobic anxiety abated.
As the family pulled up to the general store, Phil (who was in no rush to continue arguing) immediately struck up conversation with Bill from a few streets over as Janice took August by the hand and walked into the store without a second look. The conversation was typical: football teams, traffic, work, boring, boring, boring. It wasn’t until Phil murmured “Chase got out last night, and ended up dropping dead in the middle of the road.” that Michael’s attention turned to the adult’s discussion. He looked up just in time to see disbelief and wonder sweep the visage of Bill.
“Same thing happened to our dog,Tucker, last night. He just up and ran out the front door, made it about a mile-mile and a half, before he just dropped dead right in the middle of the road.” Michael’s eyes widened and his father’s expression hardened, both listening intently. Bill continued, “Didn’t hear or see anything, not sure what he could have been after. Wonder if this happened to anyone else?” Bill’s last inquiry mirrored Michael’s own ominous thoughts.
“That seems far fetched, Bill,” Phil started, “we live close enough, could have been the same thing that spooked ‘em.” Matter-of-fact, and that was the end of it. “So, what are you going to do about the kids?” Phil asked, a question he’d been asking himself since the previous evening. “Are you going to get another dog, or are they okay to wait a while?”
“Oh you know how it is,” Bill responded, waving his right hand dismissively, “we’re going to surprise them with a new puppy as soon as we can. Alice thinks it is important for them to mourn Tucker properly, all of that psychological stuff.” As that was clearly the last interesting thing Bill was going to have to say, Michael wandered off to see what his mother was doing in the store.
The street the general store was on was lined with wall to wall local shops and businesses run by local families. The sense of quaintness was a culture the town had cultivated for years, denying any attempts by franchises outside of the occasional drug store to penetrate their city council defenses. Local advertisements for garage sales, guitar lessons, and the local football team were typically plastered to every electrical pole and vacant window. Typically, the streets on this side of town were bustling with shopping families on a warm, early-fall Saturday. Yet, there was no foot traffic, and all of the signs had been replaced with pictures.
Suddenly, Michael’s heart leapt into his throat as he halted feet from the nearest window, his eyes fixated on its display. Every poster and advertisement in the general store’s window had been replaced with pictures of local dogs, simply described as “Missing”.
Horrified, Michael rushed inside the store in search of his mother, and found her with the same worried expression he wore. As Janice looked upon her thirteen-year-old son, she was able to silently convey her need for him to distract his sister. Michael turned to August, who was eyeballing a bag of gummy worms with as much intent as he looked to her now.
“Hey August, want to buy those worms and go melt them on the sidewalk?” This lazy attempt at distraction would have been quite obvious to anyone else, but August had never been given such an intriguing offer in her young life. With a toothy grin, she trotted along with her brother to buy the soon-to-be-melted worms.
Janice approached the counter, making a concerted effort to not appear shaken, hasty, or in any way less composed than usual. Frank, a silver-haired, slow-talking, old-timer stood behind the counter of his general store, much as he had for the past thirty-eight years. Frank had been behind that counter every time Janice had seen him in her fifteen years in Rockville. They’d never crossed paths at the local theater, at the barber shop, nor any other shop in town. No, as far as Janice could tell, Frank had stood behind that counter from the day he was born, and was likely to continue to do so until the day he died.
“Frank, have you noticed all of the signs outside?” Janice asked, politely attempting to enter the awkward conversation that lay ahead.
“Since I’m the one that put ‘em up, yeah. I noticed ‘em.” Frank joked, knowing as well where the conversation was likely headed and in no hurry to get there.
“Well--”Janice paused momentarily to collect herself, her breath short and hurried as anxiety began to constrict the air, her words, and her thoughts. “It's just that our dog ran away last night. He’s not missing, mind you. Poor thing died in the middle of the street.” As her mind raced ahead to the conclusion that would form her next sentence, her heart gained pace to match. “Does anyone have any idea what happened? And has anyone else mentioned that their dog is dead? Not missing, but dead?”
Frank grimaced and ran his hand through his hair, working up the best answer. “No, Janice. I’m afraid no one has really come in today, other than to put up posters - ‘cept you that is.” Empathy washed the face of old-timer Frank, as a woman he’d known long enough to consider her a daughter stood before him cemented to the floor with an unease uncommon to their small town.
“Now Janice, don’t go on getting spooked over nothin’. Could have been somethin’ like a low flyin’ plane scared off the dogs all over town, and your dog’s age just caught up with him when he started runnin’.” His explanation was similar to the one Janice had been repeating to herself, setting her mind at ease and allowing her breath to catch up with her.
After a reassured thanks, Janice continued her shopping.