Micah brought The Dog home a month ago, leading it by a jumprope he'd tied around its ragged collar. He knelt beside it, begging to keep it, promising he'd take care of it, holding Nehemiah's pant leg when he stepped closer to inspect the mongrel for fleas. "Miah, look, he needs me."
The Dog was an ugly terrier with bulging eyes and missing teeth, a bloated belly and thick scars around its eyes. Nehemiah suspected it was blind, and he knew it had worms. The Dog puked on the carpet, and they were writhing in its bile. Nehemiah gathered paper towels and bleach from the kitchen while Micah soothed The Dog. "We can't keep it," he told Micah, counting the dying parasites, wondering if vomit was supposed to be yellow. "Dad isn't going to let you keep it."
He was wrong. Dad came home and fell in love, stumbling to greet The Dog, kissing its face and rubbing its ears. He was drunk and said it looked like Macy, a fluffy mutt Nehemiah kept before Mom left and took her with. The Dog looked nothing like Macy. It was an ugly, mangy creature that barked too much and didn't like Nehemiah. He tried to pet it, and it snapped at him, nicking his thumb and drawing a pinprick of blood. "You're awful," Nehemiah informed The Dog, stuffing it in an old cat carrier while Dad started the car.
They spent more money to get The Dog healthy than Dad had ever spent on him or Micah, and he knew they weren't buying vegetables because the deworming had cost so much. Nonetheless, The Dog became Dad's companion and Micah's best friend. Nehemiah never saw either of them without The Dog, but The Dog never grew to like him. He fed it, watered it, cleaned up after it, but it always growled when he tried to pet it.
"He doesn't like you because you're mean," Micah informed him on a cold Monday morning. The Dog was on his lap, and he kissed the top of its head. He giggled when it licked his face, and Nehemiah knew its breath had to be foul. It had five teeth, the vet had told them, and it needed its food softened with milk and mashed into white rice. "Can we go to the park, Miah?"
"I'm not mean." He sat beside Micah and touched his hair. It was soft and auburn like Mom's. He looked like Mom, fine-boned and pretty, dark eyes catching the overhead light in bright rectangular reflections. "I haven't done anything to it and it still doesn't like me. It's just stupid."
"Can we go to the park?" Micah repeated. He pushed The Dog off his lap, and it waddled to its corner, pressing its nose against the linoleum before it found its bowl. "We don't have to bring Lucky or anything... When I get home from school, I mean. Are you making toast? I want toast."
"I'm making it for you." He turned to Micah and sighed, dragging his hand over his face. "Uhm... if I don't have work, we can go to the park, but I dunno. I'm not going to promise you anything. Do you want jelly?"
"You're missing school. Why can't you miss work?" Micah crossed his arms, sinking in his chair. His feet hung just shy of the floor and he kicked them furiously. "You're never here, and Dad's never here, so I have to go across the street and stay with Ms. Stacy, and Johnny's mean to me..."
"I know, but I can't miss work. If we can't go today, I'll take you this weekend just..." He caught the toast and buttered it, slathering it with strawberry preserves and peanut butter. "Hold out for me, okay? Maybe we can go see a matinee this weekend, and we'll go buy candy from the gas station. Cool?" He pressed the slices together, though Micah pulled them apart as soon as Nehemiah set the plate in front of him.
"I guess. Can you at least try?" He took a sticky bite and licked his lips. They were Mom's lips, pink and full. He looked up at Nehemiah and reached for his sleeve. "Please? Just for ten minutes, even."
"You need to get to the bus. Come on, you can walk and eat that." Nehemiah hauled Micah to his feet and gave him a paper towel, ushering him to the door. He should have been a girl, he thought. Micah would have been happier if he was a girl. He was sensitive like one and beautiful, too. "I'll see you tonight."
"Try," Micah pleaded before he left, lugging a backpack that dwarfed him. The door pulled itself closed, and Nehemiah locked it and the deadbolt.
He went upstairs, to the messy bedroom he shared with Micah, and changed into black slacks and a white button-down. He had bought both secondhand, and they hung around his thin frame, wrinkled and no more elegant when he donned the required red tie. He looked like a child playing dress up in Dad's clothes, and no matter how he tried to smooth his hair, his curls were furious and snarled, sticking from his head in wild clumps. He rubbed his jaw, rough with stubble, and wished he was like the other baby-faced sophomores.
The ones who were in school, rather than shaving and racing the clock. He had been late every day that week, and he wished he was old enough to drive. He wished he had a bike. He wished it wasn't January. He wished it hadn't snowed the night before. He wished his shoes were insulated. He wished his legs could carry him faster. He wished his hands weren't burnt cold, dry and peeling. He wished his coat wasn't too small. He wished the restaurant was closer. He wished the sign didn't mock him Yes, We're Open. He wished his manager wasn't waiting to greet him at the door, scowling. "How many times have you been late this week?"
"Well, it doesn't matter. Go home. Apparently this is too much responsibility for you."
"You're fired. Go home, Nehemiah."
He wished he could muster the courage to do more than nod, resigned. The wind bit his cheeks, numbed his nose, and his fingers felt like fragile ice, ready to crack at the bone and shatter. He sobbed a harsh breath and tears bubbled warm, but he burst into the belly of his home dry-eyed and furious, shaking with a chill rooted deep in his flesh. He kicked the wall and felt better. He kicked it again and again until the drywall broke with a brittle, sickening crunch.
"Fuck." Nehemiah dropped to his knees and fingered the ripped wallpaper, tearing it away to survey the damage. He shuddered and shed his shoes, his tie, and stood. In the living room, there was an old cabinet, and he lifted it with some effort. It was genuine oak and heavier than it looked, but it was just big enough to cover the hole. Satisfied, he unbuttoned his shirt and trotted upstairs, tripping over The Dog.
It had been snoozing on the top step, and he barely caught himself on the railing, hitting his head on the wall, blackness building at the edges of his vision, swaying until it dissipated. He turned to see The Dog staring through him with its strange, milky eyes. It was fatter than it had already been, though its fur was thick and soft. It rose on stick legs and sidled closer to sniff Nehemiah, growling before it began to bark.
It was a horrible noise, high and pitching, cut short by whimpering snarls and raspy yips. Nehemiah tried to soothe it, but it snapped at him, and he snapped, "Shut the fuck up! Seriously, shut up! Not right fucking now, shut up!" He grabbed its scruff, but that only made it yap and thrash and drool. "Shut up! What the fuck are your barking at, shut up!" He released it and stumbled back before it could bite him, but it lunged at his ankle.
Reflexively, he kicked it, and it wasn't until he belatedly heard it thump down each step that he realized what had happened.
Blood rushing and lungs caught on his last breath, he thundered downstairs and thudded to a halt at the landing, crouching. The Dog's chest rose, but it was labored, and when he touched its side, it offered no more than a timid sigh. He tried to lift it, but it clumsily twisted away, landing hard on its back, coughing and hacking violently. There were red flecks in its saliva, accompanied by yellow, and Nehemiah knew that he must have broken its rib or several.
Numb, he went upstairs, found a square blanket in the linen closet, and came back to wrap The Dog in it. It was no longer struggling, though it whined until Nehemiah covered its mouth and nose, pressing. The light was cold and gray, the wind rattled the windows, and The Dog died quietly.
He could not recall walking to the garage, finding the shovel, and letting himself into the backyard. The earth was hard and unyielding, and he did not notice his red hands. He did not notice the trees' looming shadows or the neighbors' curious eyes or the sun's pale refraction through a bed of low-hanging clouds. He did not notice anything but the blanket, yellowed-white and fraying, willing it to move. Willing the bitter cold to wake it. Willing anything to happen before he dropped The Dog in its grave and buried it, pushing snow to cover the dirt. He put the shovel away, sat at the kitchen table, and held his head in his hands.
Hours past. He knew it was 3:30 when he heard the door open and Micah shout something cheerful. The blanket was Micah's baby blanket, and Nehemiah could see Micah bundled in it, new and soft. Mom left four days after he was born, but Nehemiah loved him. He buried a dead dog in his baby blanket. "Hey, are you ready to go to the park?"
"You are home! I saw your shoes!" Micah dropped his backpack and rushed him with a tight hug, clamoring halfway on his lap. "Is Lucky in the backyard? I need to feed him before we go. He doesn't got food in his bowl."
"Yeah." The Dog was in the backyard. He couldn't lie to Micah. It was in the backyard. "Do you still want to go to the park?"
Micah pushed the sliding door open, struggling. It froze shut every winter, and snow fell into the kitchen, melting on the linoleum. Had it always been so dingy? "Lucky! Come here Lucky! Lucky! Lucky?" Micah whistled like a little bird.
Nehemiah stopped him from stepping outside in his socks. "Maybe he got out. Let's... go to the park. We can look for him. He might have gotten out and gone to the park. That's where you found him, right? At the park."
Micah didn't care about the park. He couldn't lie to Micah, but he didn't care about the park. His black eyes shone, and he buried his face against Nehemiah, rubbing his nose on his shirt. It was still unbuttoned, and Nehemiah fixed it hastily. "What if he's lost! Miah, did you just let him out? How long was he playing?"
"A few hours, but I was checking on him." He couldn't lie to Micah. He took both his hands and said, "Let's go look for him, how about that? Don't cry. We'll go look for him. Put your shoes back on, we'll go look for him. Don't cry."
Nehemiah wore two sweaters, and he made Micah wear a hat and gloves and boots. They set out into an afternoon that was already dimming, steps crunching and sinking. Hardly anyone cleared their sidewalks, and Micah took his hand and said, "We should make posters."
"Maybe tomorrow." Micah's fingers were skinny. His gloves were wool and itchy.
He looked up at Nehemiah, frowning like Mom had, pulling his cheeks and furrowing his brow. "Okay. We should go look at the park now because maybe he did just get confused because that's where he was living before, right? Maybe he got confused is all."
They wandered, looking for a dead dog. Micah called Lucky, Lucky. Nehemiah called Lucky, too. He called Lucky and asked people if they had seen a little mutt running around. They shook their heads because Lucky was dead, but Micah kept asking. Nehemiah couldn't lie to him, but he called for Lucky. He said, "Have you seen our dog? He's lost." He said it again and again. He looked under bushes, he walked along well-trodden paths, and he listened to Micah call Lucky, Lucky. He listened to himself call Lucky until it was dark, until the streetlights jaundiced the park.
"We have to go home, Micah." Tired and sad, Micah was easily lifted. He was petite for his age and liked to press his cold face against Nehemiah's warm neck. "Tomorrow we'll hang posters. How about that? We have pictures, those pictures the vet took, and he's wearing his collar." He was buried with his collar, and the walk was blessedly short.
Dad was home, asleep on the couch, and Nehemiah brought Micah to their bedroom. He took his hat, gloves, and socks, lying them over the vent. He took his coat and hung it up. He took his jeans and shirt and folded them. He gave him his pajamas and changed into a pair of flannel pants. Micah sniffled and lay down, and Nehemiah flicked off the lights before he lay down. The Dog was dead, and he couldn't lie to Micah.
"Miah?" The bed across the room creaked, the floor creaked, and his bed creaked. There was warm presence beside him, and Nehemiah put his arm around him. "What if something ate him? What if he got ran over? What if he's dead?"
He couldn't lie to Micah, and Mom's lips were on his shoulder, pink and full. "I don't think so. He was such a friendly dog and you were taking such good care of him. If anything, someone picked him up, and he's sleeping in someone's bed, warm and happy. Even if we don't find him, I bet you that's what happened to him. You need to go to sleep. It's late, and you have school tomorrow."
Breaths and two heartbeats steadied; he couldn't lie to Micah, but Lucky was dead and Micah was all he had.