To live again
by Trina Allen
Sitting on her back deck, Allison nearly choked on sweet tea when she saw the letter from Forsyth Correctional Center buried in a stack of junk mail. It had been over a year since she had spoken with her ex-husbandóthe day he shot three people in a botched bank robbery, killing a mother of two small children.
Jerry had shown absolutely no remorse during his trial, which may have surprised the press but not Allison. On the witness stand he said that he felt no guilt about leaving the two children motherless, which confirmed Allisonís belief that Jerry Schultz lacked a conscience. The jury must have believed it too because they found him guilty of both second-degree manslaughter and robbery. The judge sentenced Jerry Schultz to forty-five years with no option of parole.
The sound of childrenís laughter startled Allison back to the present. Two neighbor boys were playing a game of tag with Sam, her cocker spaniel. She waved at Dave Johnson as he lit his grill next-door. The pungent odor of burning charcoal mixed with the sweet smell of forsythia.
Allison stroked Vanís neck, grateful for his company. Fighting scars crisscrossed the pit bullís face and a large scar ran from the tattered remnants of one ear all the way to his jaw.
Van, once known as The Vanquisher, licked her hand and laid his yellow head in her lap. Then he whined, looking toward Sam, who was now chasing scents at the edge of the yard.
"Go on, then."
Van shuffled off the deck and loped toward Sam. Van nuzzled the cockerís neck, then growled and nipped Samís shoulder playfully.
Allison sorted todayís mail and looked up from reading a letter to see a red fan of dirt flying from Samís paws and a similar red brown avalanche behind Vanís front feet. Sam darted in and out of the hole in the ground, sniffing and barking. Vanís head disappeared in the hole he had dug and came up with something in his teeth.
Curious, Allison put the letter down and walked down the steps. Across the yard, Van shook the object in his teeth, growled, and then shuffled across the yard, Sam at his heels. Sam barked and whined, jumping and snapping at the object in Vanís mouth, but to no avail. He was not about to let go.
She spoke one word, "Drop."
Van immediately dropped the object, licked her hand, and then scampered across the yard. He seemed to melt out of sight.
Sam whined, his black body straining toward Van.
"No boy, you stay here." When she looked at the object that Van had dropped, a sense of disbelief filled her. She scanned the yard.
"Come Sam. Show me where you found this." She followed the cocker to the hole he and Van had dug. When she looked down, her stomach lurched and her temples throbbed with pain.
There was no explanation for what she saw.
Two years earlier, Allison had been awake just before dawn after another sleepless night. A car had pulled into her driveway, light from its headlights filtering through slits in her window blinds. She laid still, her breath coming in rapid bursts. She willed her heart to stop beating so loudly so she could hear Jerryís boots crunching gravel if he got out of the car.
During five years of marriage, Jerry had beaten her without mercy or remorse, once for talking during the football game he was watching. A small scar ran across her upper lip where his fist had opened it. Her nose remained crooked after numerous blows. Twice heíd broken her wrists when sheíd used her hands to defend herself.
In desperation, Allison had gotten a 50B order of protection and a court-ordered separation. Jerry could not come within 500 yards of the house or her. Even so, Allison believed Jerry would disregard the restraining order. She knew Jerry well enough to know a court order meant little to him. Consequently, she had the locks changed and an alarm system installed. A motion detector scanned movement in the hall. If her husband somehow got into the house, an alarm would sound, summoning the sheriff. Even that did little to ease her fear.
When the whine of the carís retreating engine became smaller, fading into the darkness, she rose up enough to peer out the blinds. The newspaper in the driveway left little doubt who had visited. Although relieved, she lay in bed saturated with perspiration. Her arms and legs were dead weight. She was afraid to move. She needed fresh pajamas, but the dresser was too far.
It was that sleepless night, like many before it, that sent her to the Guilford County Animal Shelter, desperate and tired of living in fear. She heard herself say, "Iíd like to adopt a dog, something big."
"My name is Tina. Iím sure we can find the right dog for you. We have one hundred thirty dogs here."
Small puppies licked her fingers through the bars of their cages. Cute little dogs tilted their heads and posed. Didnít Tina understand? She didnít need cute. She needed vicious. "I need a big, scary looking dog!" Her voice cracked with frustration.
Her distress grew as they passed dog after dog, some lying dejectedly in their cages. She watched a dog urinate and then lie in it. She felt defeated. Even the dogs had given up.
Then they stopped in front of a disfigured yellow-blonde dog with unattractive scars. The dog didnít bark, but wagged its tail.
"What about this dog?"
He cocked his unsightly head, whined, and licked her fingers through the bars.
Tina shook her head. "Vanquisher. Heís not for you. Heís slated to be euthanized."
"Heís a fighting dog." Tina said. "That dog has the stocky body of a pit bull. He may be part boxer, and he looks like he has some shepherd in him. But, mark my words heís a pit bull. We wonít adopt him out."
Allison remembered stories of vicious fighting dogs that turned on their owners.
The ugly dog cocked his good ear. He barked and backed up on his haunches, his scarred front legs stretched out in a doggie bow. He barked and bowed again.
Allison laughed for the first time in years, the sound of her own laughter startling her. "Iíll take him. Iíll call him Van."
Van rode home in the back seat and the front seat. He sniffed the whole interior of the car, leaving slobber marks on all the windows. And he stank.
She thought, what have I done? She knew nothing about dogs.
Van made himself at home in her house, drooling and scratching himself. His first meal was sneakers amandine, followed by compact disk pralineĖhe broke up the CDs within seconds and swallowed the pieces whole. She wondered what the plastic would do to his digestive system.
She naively laid a soft blanket at the foot of her bed and put a chew bone on it. Van had other ideas. He lumbered into the bedroom, grabbed the rawhide bone in his huge teeth, and jumped onto the bed.
Allison dragged him by his collar to the floor.
Seeming not to understand, Van jumped right back onto her bed. She tried again, but finally gave up in defeat. When he licked her face, the smell of his awful breath overpowering, Allison felt something she had not felt in a long time. She felt safe. Van and his large teeth were sleeping next to her. He gnawed the dog bone, leaving slobber and rawhide fragments on her pillow.
The next morning, when Allison stepped out of the shower, she heard Van chewing something. She had seen how quickly he demolished the rawhide so she ran toward the sound to find him chewing the bedroom wall as if it were Chicken Kiev. Slivers of wallboard littered the floor and white plaster powder covered his face. The dog looked at her, seemed to smile, and then growled at the wall and took a fresh bite. She had to do something about his voracious appetite or there would be nothing left of her house.
Van immediately enrolled in Allison Schultzís crash course in behavior management. His first trick: the sit command. She pulled him up by the collar until he sat, and then fed him pieces of dog biscuit. She stroked his scarred neck and praised him, told him what a good boy he was. Twenty times in a row. Until he sat.
He quickly learned other commands, like stay and down. With time, he mastered even the command to heel, his leash a formality. Her furniture was safe. She was safe. He slept in his own bed at the foot of hers. Gradually her night terrors stopped and she slept through the newspaperís arrival.
Allison had found the strength in that ugly, scrappy dog to learn to live again.
One morning she let Van out for his bathroom ritual, as always. After several minutes he did not bark to come in. Worried, Allison opened the door and called, "Van! Van, come here boy!" Nothing. She yelled his whole name, "Vanquisher!" She called him repeatedly, to no avail.
He had always come when she called him. Where was he? No one would steal him. He was too ugly. And then she went numb with fear. Unless someone wanted a fighting pit bull. Or worse, he was hit by a car. She pictured him lying in the road: hurt and bleeding or dead.
She couldnít get the image out of her head as she walked the streets calling him, tears streaming down her face. "Vanquisher! Here boy, come home." A car honked, breaks squealing, stopping barely inches from her. She didnít hear the angry driverís curses.
Desperate, she drove the streets with tear-blinded eyes, afraid she would find him smashed in the road, relieved that she hadnít.
She checked the animal shelter twice a day, with hope in her heart each time, and placed a lost dog ad in the same newspaper whose early-morning delivery had terrified her. She posted fliers offering a reward and called animal control, grateful they had no dogs of his description.
Finally, after two weeks, as she listened in vain for Vanís bark amongst the din of barking at the shelter, she knew. He was gone. The Vanquisher had disappeared. Sheíd never again hear that marvelous bark. What could she do without him? That ugly pound puppy meant everything to her.
She slid to the floor and sat on the concrete next to a small yappy dogís cage, put her head in her hands and sobbed.
The toy dogís yapping finally broke through her consciousness. She noticed the sign on a cage across from her. "Sam. Friendly ... cocker spaniel." She looked at the fine-looking black dog, as beautiful as Van was ugly. Large brown eyes looked intelligently at her. Sam barked and licked her fingers through the bars, his tail wagging.
She took Sam home. He was a well-behaved boy, never jumped on furniture. He slept on the floor, knew how to sit on command. He was a good companion, but he never bowed; never once made her laugh.
Allison gave up. She quit leaving the house, spent her nights in a cold sweat too afraid to get up and turn on a light. Then, as she was preparing for yet another sleepless night, she heard his familiar bark. It couldnít be him. Steeling herself for disappointment, she opened the door.
Her old friend stood in the doorway, much too thin and covered with red Carolina mud, but it was him. Van barked, the sweetest sound sheíd ever heard. He wagged his tail and sat back on his haunches, his scarred front legs stretched out in his doggy bow.
She laughed for the first time since heíd gone missing. Van barked again and licked her face. She hugged him hard, oblivious to the dirt that soaked her shirt and jeans or the tears that ran from her eyes.
Sam barked and Van touched his nose.
"Sam, this is Van. Heís come home." That was nearly two years ago.
Van barked and shook the object in his teeth. Looking at him, the letter from Forsyth Correctional Center shook in Allisonís trembling hands.
I donít have any regrets except one. I wish Iíd killed you instead of that ugly sack of shit you called a dog. It was fun watching you look for that dead mutt. I was excited when I came back for you the next night, ready to make you pay for throwing me out of my own house. But that demon of a dog stood there on your porch growling. The damn thing bowed to me.
It was dead, damn it. I killed it.
The mutt wouldnít let me close to you. If I stepped on our property it attacked me, damn near ripped my arm off with its fucking teeth. It was everywhere you went. If you left the house, it went with you. I couldnít get close to you.
Now, Iím seeing the demon cuss here in my cell at night, growling and bowing to me. Call off your dog, bitch.
Jerry Shultz was trying to scare her. Van was alive and well, digging a hole in her yard.
Still, she climbed down the deck stairs anyway and told Van to drop what was in his mouth. The sight of that object made her heart pound. At her feet was a dog collar, Vanís own. Allison looked at his collar and then stared across the yard toward the place where he had disappeared.
She told herself that he was fine. Heíd been playing in the yard just seconds ago. Dogs didnít die and then live again.
She walked with Sam to the edge of her yard. The faint odor of decay filled her nostrils. She closed her eyes once and then forced herself to look into the hole that Van had helped dig. She stifled a gag reflex. Partially unburied was the decomposing body of Vanquisher, the scrappy pit bull terrier that meant so much to her. She ran to the edge of the yard and vomited.
Winner of Write Around the Block's January 2008 short story contest.
"To Live Again." Fully Bully, IX, X (March, May 2005).