That morning had been chilly and now with the sun covered up by clouds, the cold had turned bitter and biting. The sky was gray, shot through with streaks of pale green the way it got just before a big storm was about to hit. It hadn't started yet, but when it came it would drop the temperature even further, the wind howling and whipping the window shutters and lightning scorching the tops of the trees leaving them with shattered branches, the remnants scattered at their roots looking like amputees gaping down at their lost limbs.
I knew Milo was sick and needed an operation that we couldn't afford. I understood this, but couldn't bring myself to accept it. When I looked into his eyes all I saw there was love. That love should have made me want to end his suffering, but instead I held on tighter, because after he was gone it would just be me and my father alone in the house, the two of us silently skirting around each other like ghosts.
It wasn’t that my father didn’t care for me. He had never raised his hand in anger, and I had never gone to bed cold or hungry, but he kept a large part of himself locked away from me and from everyone else. I don’t know if he had always been this way or only became so after my mother died. Sometimes it felt as though he didn’t know quite what to make of me—instances where he seemed utterly at a loss, like the time as a small child when I had bawled for hours over the loss of a plastic, toy horse. He stared at me like I was some strange creature he couldn’t comprehend. Eventually he left me there to cry myself to sleep. Some might consider his actions cruel, but I think he was simply confused and unable to cope with situations that would have fallen to my mother had she not vanished from my life before I even knew I was in the world.
Milo had been my father’s solution to the problem. The day he brought the black and brown puppy home was the happiest of my life. I suppose most would argue that a dog, no matter how affectionate, was no substitute for a mother’s love, but to me Milo was the world. He would walk with me in the morning along the dirt path that lead out from the front of our property and met up with the paved road where I waited for the bus. In the afternoon he would be sitting on the front porch when I got home from school and would come bounding across the lawn to meet me. We grew up together, and in a lot of ways I thought of him more as my brother than my pet.
He was still bigger than me, even with all the weight he’d lost from the cancer, and I heard my father grunt several times while carrying Milo in his arms as we made our way to the tree-line that marked the beginning of the forest that bordered our property.
We had seen so many things there.
A family of deer drinking from a pool, the parents flanking either side of their fawn that was barely half the size of Milo and still shaky on its new legs. A black bear trudging through the stream snatching fish out of the water like they were standing still. Wolves howling in the distance and Milo howling back like he wanted to join them.
These were moments that wouldn’t have been the same if Milo hadn’t been there at my side to witness them with me.
When we reached a small clearing circled by a ring of birch trees, my father stopped and set Milo on the ground.
“This is a good spot,” my father said. “You’ll have no trouble finding him here to visit after we put in a marker.”
I nodded, not sure of what to say. I knelt down and nestled my hand in Milo’s fur; he lifted his head a little and looked at me.
“He’s your dog. You ought to be the one to do it,” my father said as he unslung the .22 rifle from his shoulder and held it out to me.
This was the way of things for my father. Something he understood better than crying toddlers. It had been his daddy’s way, and his daddy’s daddy before that.
I shook my head at him. “I can’t.”
My father put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry it has to be this way. I wish there was something more we could have done, but it isn’t right to let him suffer.”
“I know....” I said, choking back a sob that caused my whole chest to hitch forward.
“Say your goodbyes and give him some peace, son.”
I nodded again and took the rifle from him.
My father stood there for a moment like he was about to say something else, but instead turned and headed towards the house without looking back.
I laid the gun down next to me in the grass and stroked the top of Milo’s head. He was staring up at me again, gazing straight into my eyes with that love that made me want to hold onto him as tightly as I could and melt into the ground so that we would always be together.
The first drops of rain began to fall.
I put my arms around Milo and pointed my face towards the sky waiting for the storm to come...waiting for the rain to turn the earth to mud, and swallow us both up forever.
Written by: Peter Naughton
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll