Among the White Poppies

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I think about it, I picture it cold and rainy, but I know that’s not true. It was a sunny day. Big puffy white clouds hanging high in the air. But I couldn’t see them, not yet. Because I was in the dark crawl space underneath our house. The air is stale and the clay soil sticks to my exposed stomach and legs. I push my twelve-year-old body further under the house, wiping a few cobwebs from my face. I can hear footsteps above me and the old wooden boards creak. Then the clang of a metal lid closing on a pot full of pinto beans and ham hock. I continue to crawl on my elbows further into the dark, rays of light shining in through the vents on the edges of the back of the house. The shadow and light make it difficult to see, but I carefully edge my body around the shallow pool of water that had ended my first attempt at checking for Major. I stop for a moment to listen for the shake of a rattlesnake, the hiss of an opossum, the whimper of my puppy Major.
A tingling current of electricity runs through my body as I move closer towards the noise. I reach out and touch a curled-up ball of fur, just hidden in the shadows, right out of the light shining through the wooden trellis between the ground and bottom of our double wide. I knew you didn’t run away, boy, I say in a calming voice. A wave of relief washes over me, followed by fear at his condition. He was so weak that he could barely lift his head, his little tail wagging against my hand the best it could. I scoop him into my arms and with one hand crawl back through the water puddle, the clay soil now turned mud, and up through the floor of my sister’s bedroom closet.

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The sound of the alarm clock tears through my apartment. It triggers a distress signal from my amygdala, which activates my sympathetic nerve system and I awaken from an adrenaline rush. I scan the bedroom as the feeling subsides and then I drag myself into the bathroom, turn on the light, and squint into the mirror while I brush my teeth. I wash my face in the sink and take a few deep breaths. I can still smell the tequila as I pull on my shirt and pants. I pop a couple Tylenol, grab my beanie and heavy jacket, and just make it outside to catch my ride. I nod in and out to the sound of the Toyota engine. I begin to feel nauseous, so I roll down the window and let the cold air blow across my face. He knew where I wanted to go, we had scouted the area before. So we didn’t need to speak once he pulled his truck to a stop about 5 miles down a logging road, just at the base of a steep hill. I got out and made the short hike up into the middle of a clear cut, where I slumped down beside a tree trunk. It was still dark and cold, but the increased heart rate and resulting rush of blood felt good for a minute. The rain was falling so softly that it tingled on my skin. I propped my rifle up against the stump before turning off my flashlight.

When I next opened my eyes, the first rays of morning light had formed shadowy tree stumps across the clear-cut field. I pulled my beanie down over my head as the rain had picked up. At the bottom of the hill, on the other side of the logging road, I could just make out a small grove of standing timber. A little island of hardwoods that encroached upon the clear cut all around me. It was covered by thick branches; the edges of the forest pushed back on all sides. The light continued to slowly illuminate the swath of Oregon forest before me. A big, soft cloud drifted down the hill. I followed it with my eyes as it moved across the steep bank I had climbed and over the cluster of hardwoods. I still couldn’t completely make out the shapes of the tree trunks scattered below and all around me, but at the very edge of the island of trees, I thought I could just make out the silhouette of a deer. I squinted in the hopes of distinguishing tree trunk from deer. I still couldn’t tell so I went on staring. There was no movement. Finally, I slowly reached over and lifted the rifle from against the tree trunk. Slowly, I pulled the scope up to my eye. A rush of electricity swept through my body as the buck came into focus. I tried to slow my breathing as I lined up the shot. Then, I let my finger slide down onto the trigger. The buck, which had up to this point been completely still, turned and began to walk back towards the island of trees.

In the milliseconds between registering that I had a good shot and pulling the trigger, I see the deer casually flick its tail .

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“There is no cure for parvo,” David said before he disappeared into the back of the house.

“It’s inhumane to let the dog suffer like this,” added my mother.

My chest burned as I began to cry.

“Stop crying, boy. Before I give you something to cry about.” I could see David was carrying his 20-gauge shotgun.

“Take your dog to the back yard,” he said.

“David,” my mother said.

“The dog was his responsibility. Now, he will take him to the back yard.”

“I will get a job, I’ll pay you back,” I argued through a clenched throat.

“There is no cure. I tried to warn you, but you didn’t listen to me. So, unless you want the dog to suffer his way through to a terrible death, you need to carry him to the back yard. And I mean all the way to the very back acre.”

I carried Major in my arms across three acres of dry, brittle, East Texas property. When we finally crossed a small creek, where the only trees remained, we emerged under a bright, sunny sky. The white flowers of the prickly poppy littered across the seldom-used back acre. I let the tears fall into his fur as I held Major tight in my arms. When he would whimper, I would whisper

“I’m sorry.”

I stroked his fur and kissed the top of his head as I sat Major down on the ground. He was so weak that he didn’t move. I heard David load the gun. I reach down to pet him one last time. He musters the strength to wiggle his brown and black tail.

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I hear the gunshot and flinch. My vision blurs. The rifle suddenly feels heavy so I slowly slide my finger down from the trigger. I blink to clear my vision, and am suddenly aware of the lump in my throat and tightness in my chest. I watch as the buck peacefully flicks its tail, plucks at the ground, and then disappears into the island of trees. I pull the gun down and bury my face into my hands. I crumble beside the tree trunk and sob.

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