I’m pretty much done with whatever my first novel-length story ends up being. This is another excerpt from it. It’s riddled with typos and passive voice. Haven’t really gone through and fixed things yet.
Laika’s father died when she was eleven years old. She was in fifth grade. Everyone at school treated her differently after he died. The teachers would give her extra attention. Every once in a while she would get called to the office to talk with the counselor. But she stayed the exact same as she had always been. When people asked her if she was “Doing OK,” she would always give a genuine, “I’m great! How are you?” He father’s death had no apparent impact on her.
Laika was obsessed with bugs, and gross things in general, and cried when her mother took the dog in to get treated for fleas. She used to sit in the basement combing through Rusty’s hair, crushing the fleas to death between both of her thumb’s nails. It was a bonding experience of sorts. When her mom came back from the vet, Laika was sitting at the bottom of the stairs that led to the basement. Rusty came and sat just in front of the bottom step, looking up at her as he normally would. Nothing had changed.
Rusty was a smaller beagle mix, which had to have been some kind of trend when Laika was younger, buying beagle mixes. It made sense. No renter or homeowner wants to be the one with the beagle that howls at everything in sight. But everyone knows that beagles are as American as Charlie Brown, so they settled on a mixed breed beagle. However, Laika learned at a young age that Rusty was mostly a beagle and a book from her school library taught her that beagles howled at things. So she was quick to show Rusty the ropes. Anytime a mailman came to the door, both she and Rusty would howl at the door before her mother answered it and quickly apologized to the mailman. The mailman at this point knew that Laika had recently lost her father, based on the kinds of letters and packages he was delivering. Mailmen are snoops, she’d heard her mother say. Laika knew that to be a snoop was a bad thing and that snoops deserved to be barked at.
Rusty died a week before Laika graduated from high school and one year before her mother died. The dog was a senior by anyone’s standards. Towards the end he could barely make it outside and Laika would often have to wipe for him, as he’d often soil his fur. She didn’t mind, but she was worried about her mother, mostly. Her mother, Jane, was battling esophageal cancer and was undergoing intense chemo. One morning before getting ready for one of her appointments, Jane took Rusty out to the backyard. The dog couldn’t standup to do any of his business. After a short conversation with Laika about the right thing to do, they loaded Rusty into the back of their shared station wagon and took Rusty to his last visit to the vet.
After examining Rusty, the vet told Jane, “There’s really nothing we can do. He’s an old dog. It’s likely he wouldn’t even be able to handle the anesthesia.”
“What should we do, Mom?” Laika asked.
“I don’t know, honey,” her mother replied in a soft, concerned voice. The clock ticked on the wall. The only other sound was other dogs barking and cats meowing behind closed doors. Finally, Jane asked the question she’d been trying to find an eloquent way of phrasing, but ultimately gave up, blurting out, “Doctor White, what would you do?”
Doctor White leaned over Rusty and thought as hard as a person can who believes in the density of thought. If there was a way to think harder or softer, Doctor White was thinking hard.
“You know, it’s never easy answering that question,” he said, “but I always say the same thing, even after thinking about it in a new way each time. I swear. You’d think it’d be easier by now. Trust me when I say this, and I’m not just saying this because it’s what I’m, or people like me, are supposed to say, I know how both of you feel right now, even if I don’t appear to. I remember when your father brought him in for the first time to get his shots. You know, I must have treated a dozen of those dogs that summer, but I never did find out who was breeding all of these beagles because I only ever saw the puppies. But there was definitely a fad going on here for a while. Your father was so happy to just be in the same room as that dog. Laika, you must have been only four or five at the time. Your father talked to me about how much you loved him, well, the dog. Said how you two would just roll around on the floor for hours and before he knew it the dog wasn’t really his anymore. He was yours. I remember he said something about how he was trying to show you some statue of a dog he named you after. You called it ‘Rusty’ and that’s how Rusty got his name. I know this dog has been with you for almost as long as you can remember. If there was anything I could do to help Rusty, trust me, I would. But there isn’t. He’s in pain, Laika. My only advice would be to prevent him from suffering.”
Rusty was dead, in a cheap, black, zip up bag, in the back seat of her mother’s station wagon after Laika dropped her off and parked the car. It was a long appointment. Laika stayed in the car. The doctor said pretty much the same thing to her mother as the vet did to Rusty. The conversations were almost interchangeable.
While Laika remained in the front seat of her mother’s car, she could not help but occasionally stare at the cheap bag in the backseat, reflected in the rearview mirror. She turned on the radio and found that every song was about someone missing someone else so she turned it off. She fell asleep thinking about Rusty at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to be scratched. When she woke up, she was considerably cold, as winters in Colorado are, and quickly started the car, blasting the heat. Only an hour had passed since her mother went in to the hospital.
“You know, Rusty,” Laika said, “this is probably the last time we’re going to have to wait in the car like this. I wonder if they ever would have said anything if we’d brought you inside. Mom never really wanted to try. I did. Would it really have been that big of a deal at this point? I mean, for both of you. She doesn’t want me to go inside because she doesn’t think it’d be good for her or the doctors to have us around in there. It’s more for her than for me.”
She turned on the radio one more time and switched over to a live broadcast of some bluegrass concert happening downtown.
“And you know what? I was kind of sad when the fleas went away. I don’t think we’d have ever really gotten to know each other if you didn’t have them. The way dad was about certain things. He could be really weird, but I still l—”
It was as if something were physically blocking her vocal cords. As if she had swallowed an apple. She could make out the phoneme “/l/,” but could not produce a vowel or the final consonant. The last thing she remembered was waking up on the floor of the main entrance to the hospital, holding something cold, familiar, and comforting. She was surrounded by nurses as one slowly lifted her arm and unzipped the cheap, black bag.
Old Shep, he has gone where the good doggies go,
and no more with Old Shep will I roam.