By Tony Dietz
Flash fiction published in the Tahoma Literary Review, Issue 15, July 2019
There was no denying the dog was dead, just as there was no denying the disbelief etched in the little girl’s face. Her scream had fled the street. The car, and the screech of its tires, had fled too. Now there was just a man on one side of the road, and a girl on the other, with the silence between them punctuated by a dead dog.
The Phoenix sun bore down on the three. The girl held the handle of a retractable leash in her chubby hands, the leash connecting her to the dog, like the solution to a puzzle in a child’s activity book. There was no line connecting the man to either the girl or the dog, and he thought maybe he should keep walking, take off like the driver had. But he didn’t. He stood in the hot silence of the street and looked at the dog. A thin trickle of blood made its way across the road to the gutter. He took a pull from the brown-bagged bottle he carried, coughed, then took another pull. Nothing changed. He walked over to the dog and prodded it with the toe of his boot.
“Your dog’s dead,” he said to the girl.
She glared at him, openly willing him to disappear, willing time to turn back.
The sun burned hot on his neck. The road burned hot through the soles of his boots. He looked at her, then down at the dog, then back at her. She seemed stuck. He cleared his throat and prodded the dog again with his boot.
“Your dog’s dead.”
“She is not!” Released by hot anger, the girl dropped the leash handle, ran to her dog, and flung her arms about its neck. The handle skittered across the road after her.
The man shifted from foot to foot on the burning pavement. Sweat trickled down his back. His head throbbed. “Can’t leave a dead dog in the street,” he said. “Gonna have to move it.”
“Maybe she can’t move cause she’s tired.” The girl looked up at him, pleading. “Maybe she can’t move cause she’s sleeping.”
“Maybe she can’t move cause she’s dead.”
The girl’s eyes started to tear. The man looked away and took a swig from his bottle. “Gonna have to move it,” he said. The girl buried her face in her dog’s fur and sobbed. The man looked away, squinting out to where the street buckled in a migraine of heat.
The girl’s sobs died down. She tugged at her dog’s head. “I can’t.”
“Let me do it.” He drained his bottle and placed it on the road beside the dog. He put his battered cardboard sign next to it. The sign read: “Homeless vet—anything helps—even smiles.” It was a lie. Smiles never helped.
The dog was lighter than he expected, mostly fluffy coat. Some of its guts stayed on the road. “Where am I taking her?” he asked the girl.
“Daisy was whining for a walk, and Daddy was busy with the people, and Mommy was sleeping, so I took her myself, but there was a bunny and Daisy chased it and a car came and¼” She looked down and scuffed her shoe on the road.
“And it hit her, and she died.”
The girl nodded and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“So where am I taking her?”
She pointed down the road to a house whose drive was crowded with cars. More cars lined the street in front.
“Having a party?” he asked the girl.
She didn’t answer.
He lugged the dead dog down the street to the house. The girl picked up the leash handle and followed him, the leash now connecting her to the man.
The house was closed and shuttered against the heat, but he could hear a dull murmur of voices above the drone of the air conditioner. He laid the dog in the yard’s only shade, under a twisted old mesquite tree. The dog’s blood, warm and sticky, had soaked the front of his shirt.
The girl tangled him in the leash as she knelt beside the dog. He tried to unclip it, but his cracked and shaking hands wouldn’t cooperate. He had to concentrate, and the effort made his head pound. The leash came loose and struck him in the ear as it whipped back into the handle. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath.
When he stood to go, the girl reached out and grabbed his pant leg.
“Will my daddy be mad at me?” Her eyes were solemn and scared.
“I don’t want him to be mad, anymore.”
“Tell your mom then.” He pulled from her grip and started down the path.
“I can’t,” the girl called after him. “My mommy is sleep—” she searched for the right word. “My mommy is dead.”
“That why all these people are here?”
“Ah, shit.” His sigh was swallowed by the hot air. He looked about the yard, avoiding the girl’s eyes. Geraniums lined the front of the house, bone brittle but for one that persisted in the shade of the mesquite. It offered a single red flower, as improbable as the girl.
She looked up at him, unblinking, her grip white-tight on the handle of a leash that wasn’t connected to anything. Her lips trembled, and he thought she might cry again. He looked at the ground. It seemed the cracks in the dirt waited for her tears, yearned for them. His craving sharpened. He would need carboard for a new sign.
Her voice pulled him back to her. “Maybe you could tell?”
“My daddy. He won’t be mad if you tell him.”
He looked at the girl. Heat snarled in the space between them. He tried to get his mouth around the thing she needed to hear, the thing that would kill the stubborn hope in her eyes.
“Please.” Her gaze tugged as hard as her voice.
A fault shifted in his chest, releasing a word, not the word he meant to say, but another word entirely.
“Alright,” he said. He climbed the front steps and knocked. As he waited, he felt a hand slide into his, a tiny thing, soft and cool, cradled in his calluses.