From the author: When you're cruel to animals you get what you deserve.
Jean often threw rocks at the dog as she passed it on her way home from softball practice. It became a hobby, and she was accustomed to seeing the dog every day without fail. Some days she would throw stones at it, small and unobtrusive. Other days she would ram it with her bike, cursing it when it managed to scamper away before she ran over its tail. Last week, she had failed her math test, so on her way home, she collected a handful of pine cones and pelted them at it as hard as she could.
“There it is, there’s the stupid dog,” Jean said to Tom, as they walked their bikes down Jean’s street. “Everyone feeds it, but no one knows where it came from.”
Tom looked over at the dog laying dejectedly in the shade and nodded. “Doesn’t look purebred to me.”
Jean shrugged. “Well, it is. Someone said it jumped out of the back of a truck that passed through town, but I swear it’s pure bread. They don’t breed mutts as working dogs.”
Tom nodded, and they crossed the road to stand beside it.
“Look at how dirty it is,” Jean said. “I wonder when it last had a bath. Probably back on the farm.”
Tom shrugged. “Hasn’t anyone called the pound?”
“Why would they? It’s not like it will be any use to anyone. It probably broke its leg when it fell off the truck. I’ve been stopping by every so often to see if anyone would pick it up, but no one has.”
Today she held a heavy brick in her hand, which she swiped from the top of Mrs Murray’s crumbling garden wall. The dog knew what would happen when Jean appeared from around the corner. He and Jean would lock eyes, and Jean would lift a thin brow as if saying ‘are you ready, punk?’ and the dog would merely close his eyes and bear the assault without protestation.
The dog appeared smaller than his shadow, and he would sit under the thin lilac branches of the nearby jacaranda tree, burying himself in the dirt. When he rolled on his back, rubbing his shoulder blades into the dry leaves, his tongue would spill out of the corner of his mouth, and a big glob of saliva would hang from his jowls, swinging in the late afternoon breeze. Sure enough, Jean stepped into the shadow at five fifteen, except this time she had a companion. The dog looked up at the tall, gangly legs, the patch of spots on the boy’s face, and back down to the holes in his shoes.
“It never barks,” Jean said to Tom. “Maybe it was hit by a car or something. If it were human, it’d be like that retarded kid in our class.”
Tom laughed and dug the toe of his shoe into the dirt. “Does it ever move from that spot?”
Jean shook her head. “Nuh. It’s been in the same spot for ages. Look at it – looks like someone’s chewed its ears off.”
The dog closed his eyes and inched himself closer to the thin crepuscular ray of sun that shone through the branches of the tree. The sky had darkened to a hazy orange with streaks of purple sticking out from behind the clouds. An unruffled wind rustled the leaves of the tree, and the dog shivered, burying himself deeper into the dirt. He appeared to have dug some sort of hollowed out pit for himself, and he shook his body roughly, his fur catching the dirt so it spilt on top of his back like a blanket.
“Are you sure it fell off the back of a truck? Who owns it?”
Jean shrugged. “Dunno. Billy told me about the farm truck. Maybe it’s just some runaway mutt. I always see signs around of lost dogs, but have you ever seen a poster about a dog being found?”
Tom shook his head. “Nah. Didn’t even know people did that.”
“That’s because no one cares about dogs the same way they care about kids.” Jean snorted and tossed the brick from one hand to the other. She had played softball for three years now. Her P.E. teacher often commended her strong swing. “Dogs are disposable, y’know?” she continued. “They’re always breeding. Kate’s dog had a litter of thirteen last week, and two of them died. Good riddance.”
Tom nodded nonchalantly and tugged at the frayed hem of his school shirt. “What did she do with them?”
“Oh, I think she gave them away.”
“Nah,” he said, “the ones that died. What did glazing do with them?”
Jean shrugged. “Dunno. Probably dumped them in the river, but who cares? They’re just dumb dogs. Like this one here,” she said, and she kicked the dog in the side, sending it tumbling out of the comfort of its pit. The dog didn’t yelp; it laid there, under the tree, staring up at the kids with milky blue eyes.
“I reckon it’s come here to die,” Jean said quietly. “You know how animals sometimes do that? They crawl under a veranda or go behind a shed and just die.”
“My mum said my gran did that,” said Tom. “She went out the back and sat on the old swing and just died. Old people are weird. And then they die.”
"Maybe they run out of boring stories to tell?”
The dog looked up at the pair and rubbed its head into the dirt, nudging its nose against the little stones and small pieces of bark. Its fur had flattened down around its neck, so it grew out in all different directions. Jean assumed someone had once owned it, and that it had worn a collar, but that seemed like a long time ago. She threw the brick up into the air and caught it; it weighed heavily in her hand.
“Hey, dog! Show us a trick!”
The dog appeared to frown at them, and it wriggled its nose, snot dripping in the dirt. Jean kicked a stone towards it and laughed as it struck the dogs’ eye, laughing as it yelped.
Tom rolled his eyes. “This is stupid. I’m going home.”
Jean grabbed his sleeve and shook her head. “Wait!” She looked down at the dog, at the spit on its mouth, at the dirt and grime congealed around its eyes. Its face seemed to sag, and the scruff around its paws were matted with dirt. Crusty patches of mottled skin flaked around the ridge of its nose, and its eyes, rimmed in a line of dried yellow rheum, fluttered open and closed.
Jean huffed. “Very well, then!” She stared at the dog squarely in the eyes and lifted her arm. Suddenly the brick felt a little too heavy in her hand and she hesitated.
“What are you doing?”
Jean smiled. “Do you dare me?”
Tom drew his brows together in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“How much? Come on, how much?”
Tom shook his head. “Leave it alone; it’s just a filthy dog. What did it ever do to you? Come on, let’s go.”
Jean frowned and rolled her eyes. “You were the one who wanted to see it! I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t beg me to see the dog.”
“Me?” Tom exclaimed petulantly. “You said it was purebred and that I could take it home and sell it,” he said, nudging the dog gently with his shoe. “You knew my parents were having trouble with money and you convinced me this would work. I even told my brother.”
He huffed in annoyance and turned to walk away. “You’re such a liar.”
“Wait!” Jean grabbed the boys’ sleeve, and he tugged it away. “Come on, Tom. We can go do something else if you want.”
“Nah, I think I’ll just go home. I told mum I would mow the lawn. This is boring.”
Jean catapulted the brick towards the dogs’ face, and it overturned in the air and smashed against its nose, causing it to yelp in pain. It hung its head and covered its nose with its paws.
Tom, grimacing, bit down on his bottom lip.
Jean skipped over to the dog and picked up the brick, then moved back to stand beside him, throwing the brick towards the dog more forcefully. The dog continued to yowl, and she laughed, bending to pick up the brick once again. This time she hovered over the cowering animal and began to beat the rock against the side of the dogs’ face.
Tom grabbed Jean’s arm and pulled her towards him. She scowled and attempted to yank her arm away, but Tom’s grip was strong.
“What’s the matter, sissy?” she taunted. “It’s just a dumb dog. I’m helping it die.”
Tom shook his head, his body shaking, and looked down at the cowering dog. Blood dripped from its mattered fur, and its right eye had closed over. Its breaths were short, sharp wheezes. It stuck out its tongue and attempted to lap at the blood, its left eye glazed. Jean untangled herself from the boy and raised her arm, the brick hovering above the dogs’ head.
She raised her left brow and smiled. “It was gonna die anyway.”
She bent over and smashed the rock against the dog’s face, killing it instantly. Once it was dead, she continued to beat it; it stared up at her, unseeing, its limp body rolling deeper into the ditch with each blow.
When Jean had finished beating the dead dog, she nudged it with her shoe and laughed.
“Dogs think they’re so tough with their stupid barks and their stupid sharp claws. But they can be broken, just like you and I.”
Tom dry swallowed his lump of fear and let out a deep breath. “Why did you do that, you stupid girl?” he shouted. “Who do you think you are?”
Jean snorted and ran her bloodied hands through her hair.
“I’m like a blessing to that stupid dog. Like I said: it was gonna die anyway. I’m just doing it a favour.”
She looked over at the houses across the street, at the empty verandas, open doors. The early evening breeze blew leaves across the street, and the crickets began to chirp, as if reminding the children in the street the oncoming dusk could not hold back forever. A tall boy sped down the road on a bicycle, and two kids shouted at each other from within a tree.
“But...the dog was alive,” Tom protested. “You can’t just go around killing animals just because you want to.”
Jean huffed and turned up her top lip. “Who says? You? You’re just a stupid boy.”
Tom shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair in agitation. “Shit, you’re so dumb! Don’t you understand that everything is connected? The circle of life? We have to respect animals because they love us more than they love each other!”
“Oh?” Jean replied, smirking. “Who told you that? Your hippy mum?”
“The Lion King!”
Jean laughed. “Wow. I don’t even know why we hang around each other. You’re such a baby!”
“Am not! It’s true!” Tom protested. “You’re an idiot!”
He wrenched the brick angrily from her hand and kicked her to the ground. He leaned over her and smashed the brick across the back of her head. She rolled on her side in a slump, limbs akimbo, her eyes crinkling open.
Tom stared down at her in shock, his chest heaving. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead, then down his nose, dropping on the ground in front of him. He clenched and unclenched his fists as a hot flush settled across his cheeks. Slowly, he extended his foot and prodded the girl. She was unresponsive, her body limp. He bit down on his bottom lip, drawing blood, and let out a long sigh of relief.
Tom leaned down and scooped the dog up in his arms. He closed his eyes and held it against his chest, body gently swaying, and pictured the yellow splendour of sunshine, the crackling leaves of autumn, and the humming and chirping of spring birdsong. He hoped the dog had basked in the warm sunlight behind a slow-trickling river, had felt the cool spring hair run its fingers through his fur as he lay upon a soft green hill, or had slumbered cosily beside the hearth inside a home with a family who loved him. He imagined the dog chasing cats always out of his reach, scampering down alleyways and dodging fast cars. He smiled as the cicadas’ relentless cry pierced through his thoughts, and opened his eyes, a single tear running down his cheek.
“Come on,” he said, cradling the dog against his chest, as he walked away from Jean and the jacaranda tree, “let’s go home.”
This story originally appeared in UQ Writer's Club First Place.