By Chris Lewis Carter.
When Bandit doesn’t greet me, I know something is wrong.
“Here, boy. Where are you hiding?” I toss my keys on the hall table, then whistle a few bars of Camptown Races. “Come on out, buddy.”
Bandit is my five-year-old Siberian Husky, named for the black fur that circles his eyes and connects at the bridge of his snout like those old-fashioned burglar masks. Normally I can’t make it up the front steps before he’s scratching at the door, barking excitedly at my return. But today the house is completely silent.
I grab his harness from the closet and rattle the attached chain-link leash. “Who wants to go for a walk?”
But Bandit still doesn’t come. This isn’t like him.
I move quickly across the carpet, not bothering to remove my shoes. “Bandit?”
He’s not in the living room.
“Where are you, boy?”
Not in the dining room, either.
I finally find him laying down in the kitchen, next to a landslide of dusty brown pebbles. The cupboard underneath the sink is wide open, revealing the tattered remains of his economy-size bag of kibble.
“Jesus Christ, Bandit.” I take a few steps closer, scrunching pieces of dry food against the linoleum. “What’d you do?”
He looks up at me with sad, blue eyes, but doesn’t move. His face is buried in his front paws.
“Are you all right, boy?”
I kneel down and scratch underneath his chin, then draw back my hand. His fur is soaking wet. I gently lift his head and see that his bottom jaw is slick with a frothy drool that drips down the corners of his mouth.
“What in the…”
He whines, and I can almost hear him telling me that it hurts. “It’s okay, buddy. Everything is okay.” When I lay my hand along his side, his muscles quiver at the touch.
I grab my cell phone and scroll through the contacts list until Vet appears on the display. After three rings, a woman answers, “Cedar Falls Animal Clinic, how may I help you?”
“Hi, this is Rick Townsend calling about my dog, Bandit. Are you a doctor?”
“No, but I’m a certified vet-tech. What’s the trouble, sir?”
Bandit is whining again. I give his head a reassuring pat, but it’s burning up.
“I think he’s sick or something. He’s got a fever, drooling like crazy, and having these… muscle tremors, I guess. What could that mean?”
The line is quiet for a moment, then she says, “Mr. Townsend, has your dog ingested any sort of toxins that you’re aware of?”
“Toxins?” The word sounds almost criminal, like I’m hiding uranium in my garage.
“No, he’s just lying here in the kitchen.” I glance at the torn bag of kibble and shake my head. “He got into his food at some point today but other than that…”
My words solidify in my throat. What looks like yellow cardboard is sticking out from underneath the kibble bag. “Wait, hang on.”
I scoot over to the sink cupboard and yank it free, revealing a box about the size of a drugstore paperback. The top flap is pressed open and a pool of black pellets have already spilled out.
Wasn’t it supposed to be empty? Didn’t I throw it away? I can’t even remember putting it underneath the sink.
“It’s snail bait. He got into snail bait.”
The tiny skull and crossbones stamped in the corner has its mouth etched in a slight grin.
“Listen to me, Mr. Townsend,” she says. “Your dog has metaldehyde poisoning, which can be very serious. How long has it been since he first ingested the bait?”
My heart goes into overdrive. “I don’t know. He’s been alone all day, there’s no way to tell.”
Bandit’s entire body trembles as though he’s freezing. He makes a low howl that reminds me of his pain after being neutered. “What should I do?”
“You need to remain calm,” she says. “Are you able to induce vomiting?”
I take a deep breath and try to collect myself. “Like, with my fingers?”
“Never use your hands, sir. It’s dangerous for you and the dog. Is there any hydrogen peroxide in the house?”
“I don’t have that either.”
“What about powdered mustard?”
“Who the hell has powdered mustard!”
With each new suggestion, I feel more like a parent who doesn’t inoculate their child against disease. No one can stop the sky from falling, but there’s no excuse for being unprepared when it does.
This is my fault. I’ve let him down.
I pound the cupboard door, and the noise startles Bandit to his feet. He wobbles for a few seconds, then his legs buckle and he crashes back to the floor.
“Oh Christ, I’m sorry, buddy.” I stroke his fur, and a lump begins to form in my throat. “Jesus, he can’t even walk.”
When I turn away, my gaze lands on the photo of Bandit that’s stuck to the refrigerator. It was taken last Christmas. He’s wearing a Santa Clause hat.
“Sir, you need to calm down. How soon can you get your dog here?”
My eyes are burning. “I’m about ten minutes away.”
“You need to bring him in immediately. At this stage, every minute counts. Keep him comfortable, but try not to let him fall asleep.”
“We’ll be right there.”
I snap the phone shut and pocket it. “Do you want to ride in the car, buddy?” His tail wobbles slightly. Even now, he still understands me.
“I’ll help you get there. Don’t worry.” Bandit was fifty-two pounds the last time he was weighed, and I’ve never carried an animal his size before. After a few moments of deciding on the best technique, I place one arm underneath his front paws and the other by his abdomen.
His temperament shifts instantly, and he begins to growl.
“Easy, buddy. It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”
But when I attempt to lift, he barks like a savage and clamps his teeth down on my forearm.
“Bandit, no!” I stumble backwards and trip over his leash, thudding to the floor. Although it stings, the bite didn’t pass through my suit jacket.
“It’s not your fault, boy. I know you’re hurting.” I grab the leash and adjust some of the harness straps. “Don’t be mad, okay? This is for your own good.”
I manoeuvre some of the straps around his snout and draw them tight, forming a make-shift muzzle. He growls in protest, and when I lift him off the floor he uses what little strength he has left to thrash around and howl like he’s being skinned alive. It takes three of these exchanges before I finally manage to lug him out to the car. Once he’s inside, I run back to the house and grab his fleece blanket from the foot of my bed.
“Here you go, buddy. It’s your favourite.” I drape the blanket across his back and tuck the sides underneath him as much as he’ll allow. He wags his tail and gives me another look from those sad eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he’s telling me. ‘I’m just scared.
In a few moments we’re peeling out of the driveway and down the block. Around turns and through neighbourhoods. I run a red light, then race past a sign that says ‘Children At Play,’ doing sixty-five.
All I can concentrate on is Bandit’s laboured breathing coming from the back seat. How it seems more shallow than it did a few minutes ago.
Keep him awake, that’s what the woman had told me.
“You’re going to be all right, buddy.” I’m practically yelling, trying to keep both of us focused. “We can go to the park later and toss your Frisbee all day. Would you like that? We can do whatever you want, but you need to stay with me, okay?”
The faster I go, the more memories tear though my mind. The ten-week-old puppy who chewed up my favourite dress shoes. Throwing tennis balls in the back yard for hours on end. Late night walks to the corner store for ice cream sandwiches.
“You’re not leaving me, Bandit. I’m not going to let you.”
A sudden stench floods the cabin, so foul that I fight to suppress my gag reflex. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror confirms my suspicion. Bandit has lost control of his bowels, and the evidence is oozing down the seats.
“That’s okay, it’s not your fault, buddy.” I say, as we speed through the final seconds of a yellow light. “You can’t help it.”
We screech onto the clinic lot about a minute later. I park sideways across the handicapped space near the door, ticket be damned.
I bolt from the car and open the rear door. “We made it, buddy, it’s going to be… Bandit?” His eyes are closed. I can’t tell if he’s breathing or not.
“Oh Jesus, Bandit! Come on, buddy. Wake up.” I’m too scared to shake him, afraid I’ll only make things worse. Instead, I scoop him into my arms – stained blanket and all – and burst through the clinic doors.
“Help! I need help over here!”
The reception area explodes with a cacophony of animal noises. People sit lined against the walls on folding chairs, holding their pets on leashes or inside plastic carriers. Routine check-ups and mundane problems.
But even with chaos all around us, Bandit doesn’t stir.
A woman in pink scrubs hurries out from behind the counter. “Are you Mr. Townsend?” she says, and I immediately recognize her voice from the phone.
She motions to a hallway on the right. “This way. Dr. Bailey is expecting you.”
I follow her until we reach a door at the end, where she ushers me inside and helps me lay Bandit down on the table. My suit is covered in a mixture of drool and feces. The smell alone should be enough to make me vomit, but it doesn’t register. Hardly anything does. All I can focus on is Bandit, stretched out on his side, body limp, eyes closed.
Another woman in a white lab coat enters the room from a door on the opposite side. “Mr. Townsend, your dog ingested snail bait?”
I nod. “Please, you’ve got to help him.”
She places her stethoscope on Bandit’s chest, listens for what feels like an eternity, then shakes her head.
“I’m very sorry, sir.”
My entire body feels like it’s filling with cement. This can’t be happening.
“The poison was too much for him. It’s not your fault, you did everything you could.”
Don’t say it. Please, don’t say it.
The finality of her words steal the air from my lungs. I can’t speak. Not sure of what to say even if I could.
“I’ll give you a moment,” she says, then grants me her most sympathetic nod and leaves the room.
I just stand there, detached from everything, staring at Bandit’s lifeless body. Eventually, I work up the courage to scratch him behind the ears, but then I realize that he can’t feel it anymore. He’ll never feel anything again. Bandit and I, we’ll never play, or ride in the car, or sit together on the couch for the rest of my life.
“Goodbye, buddy,” I say, tracing the mask around his eyes. “I’m really going to miss you.”
I give him one final hug, then bury my face against his neck and cry until his warmth begins to fade.
As my last tears soak into his fur, I wonder what he would say to me right now if he was still here. That he’s sorry? That it was my fault? No, that’s not what Bandit would do.
He would look up at me with those bright, blue eyes, offer me his paw, and say, “I’m going to miss you too.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Lewis Carter was born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada. When he isn’t playing video games or listening to obscure podcasts, Chris will stare at his keyboard for hours on end. This usually means that he’s writing, but not always. His work has been published in the Cuffer Anthology Volume Two, 2013: The Aftermath, and Word Riot. He is currently working on his first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 21st, 2010.