Byron found the dog’s carcass laid out on the black mud of the salt marsh, just behind a row of palms and within sight of the community dock. It wasn’t a neighborhood dog. The breed was wrong. Something strange. Off color.
The body was short with square, well-muscled shoulders. The stomach was white with spots, each one distended now like tattoos on a pregnant belly. The fur ran from yellow to brown. Beer cans, crab trap floats and Styrofoam cooler pieces formed a line where the water left them. Ten yards below the high-water mark, the dog lay alone on the dried and cracked mud.
It didn’t come in on the tide, Byron thought. It was brought here. There were no footprints, but the mud was hard and washed by the sea.
The dog’s eyes were open, the lids and ball of one socket pecked and pulled away. There was a hole ripped into the lower abdomen. Buzzards. Something must have scared them away, or maybe the tide had come in and covered the body. He poked at the dog with a length of palm frond. The hair was stiff with salt, and the flesh beneath did not give easily. The whole of it rocked when he pushed harder with the stick.
Byron examined the tan pads of the dog’s feet, which were clean. He pulled the pads apart and felt the soft place between them, like he did with his dogs at home. His parents would not have approved. There was a gallon-sized Purell on his kitchen table, and the family wiped to their elbows at meals or in passing.
The smell of the carcass was enough to wrinkle Byron’s nose. Some of the dog smell, dusty and warm, still clung to the hide, though decay rose from the wounds. It might have been a good dog, he decided. The ears were kind—drooping and soft. The teeth were sharp and clean. He guessed it was young.
Byron would be sixteen in two weeks. For his birthday, he had asked for a nylon dragon kite and a Casio calculator watch. The kite, he wanted to fly in the open lot beside his house. The watch, he wanted to impress his neighbor Mary, who wore hers every day. Mary had not been at school today, but the pollen streaked Lexus in her driveway hinted that she was home, and she knew Byron would be here.
He was left alone in the evenings, his parents working late. After the bus dropped him off, he would often walk the dry-muds of the marsh—his book bag hung on the jagged bark of a palm tree, and a palm frond sword in his hand to poke and prod at whatever the water left. Mary often came with him; though, it had been three days since Byron had seen her last. Three days since her father had been arrested. He had killed a man.
The dead man was a lover. There had been no struggle and no chase. After it was done, Mary’s father, Phillip, sat in the garage and waited for the police to arrive, while Mary’s mother, Beth, sobbed into the kitchen phone to the 9-1-1 dispatcher then fled to a neighbor’s house—the Mitchel’s. Phillip sat in the garage and smoked. It was said that five cruisers came—flashing and parked front-to-back like railcars on a model train that bent around Mary’s U-shaped driveway. It was just after school, and not many in the neighborhood were home.
When the deputy sheriff arrived, Paul Mitchel, who played tennis with Byron’s father, said that Phillip “walked right out to the deputy with his hands up. With his hands up and a cigarette still in his mouth.”
“Did they find the gun?” Byron’s father asked, his fist wrapped in Lucy’s leash. Byron held Tomcat at a good heel, while his mother held Rory, the Bichon, in her arms. The whole family walked together.
“Hell no. And I heard from the Deputy that Phil hasn’t said nothin but ‘lawyer’ since they brought him in.”
Mary was not at school the next day, or yesterday, or today. Byron was not surprised by Mary’s absence, but he was curious about where she had been during the killing. It had been a Tuesday. Mary and Byron had ridden home together on the bus and walked the marsh. They had found, among other things that day, two pieces of good, green sea-glass, smooth and glossy, and then they had gone home.
She must have been in the house when it happened, Byron thought, noticing now that the dog’s toenails were neatly trimmed.
The lover had been a man called Babe. Whatever his real name was, no one used it. For over a year now, his truck had been appearing outside Mary’s house—sometimes for days at a time. At the neighborhood oyster roast, everyone gossiped about what he did for work. Someone heard he built dog boxes and shipped them all over the country. Another heard he welded submarines at King’s Bay. “A scuba welder,” Mrs. Stanley confirmed with a nod. “Very skilled. I’ve seen the tanks.” Phillip’s truck was a rarity. He came some weekends to take Mary to lunch, or maybe a show. On those days, Babe was on the job.
“He was a real nice guy,” Paul Mitchel told Byron’s father. “A nice guy who never hurt anybody. Helped me put up my Christmas lights this year. On a ladder.”
Once, Babe took Beth out on a kayak. Byron and Mary had watched the adults from the community dock as the boat wound its way through the marsh and out to a dry-land patch. The kayak laid there beached until dark.
“They’re fucking,” Mary had said.
Byron stayed for dinner at Mary’s that night. Babe boiled pasta and toasted garlic bread and sang Tim McGraw, while Mary’s mother chopped vegetables and hummed along. Mary looked baby blue daggers at everyone in the room—chew, chew, scowl. Byron was hooked.
“Byron?” Mary’s voice called from the palm brush-forest. A second later, she broke through the wood line and began walking towards Byron and the dog. Her stringy blond hair was down today and hung all the way to her waist, fine as silk and flying all about her face. Her watch, he saw, was gone.
Mary was a year younger than Byron. Only fourteen. She was a pretty girl, he thought—had always thought. Even if her skin was so white you could see the blue of her veins, especially around the tops of her hips, she was a pretty girl.
Byron had kissed her once two years ago. She had asked him not to do it again.
“Gross, huh?” Mary said, crouching next to Byron and the dog.
“Are you okay?” Byron asked. “I heard.”
“I’m fine. Dad’s in jail.”
“Is your mom okay?”
“Yeah. I was in the house when it happened. At the top of the stairs.”
Byron threw his palm frond sword into the mud flat; the blade sang whiffle notes in the air.
“Gosh,” he said after some time.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” Mary said.
“He was gross. Always kissing on Mom. Feeling her legs when I was around.”
“Dad shot him here,” Mary pointed to a place an inch above her right eye. “The bullet went through and into the wall. The cops pulled it out.”
“What happened to the gun?”
Mary smiled. Her teeth were white as soap, and thin. Byron could almost see through her two front ones. He could see the grooves in the enamel, and the serrations on their flat, razor edges.
“I don’t know.”
Bryon’s father believed that Phillip had thrown the gun into the river. His mother believed he had hidden it in the house. “He was a carpenter,” Byron’s mother said. “That whole house has secret drawers and hidden closets.” If there were secret closets in Mary’s house, Byron hadn’t seen them.
He began to draw a line in the mud with the toe of his sneaker, circling the dog. He wished he had not thrown the stick.
“I took the gun. When Dad left, and Mom ran away.”
“I still have it,” she said.
Mary walked back to the wood line, and Byron followed, feeling like he was walking on the moon, his knees rubbery and loose.
“He kept trying to get her on his side. He kept trying to be all sweet, and Mom bought it. It was so annoying,” Mary said absently, digging in the growth of an azalea until she pulled out the gun.
It was a small, black revolver with a wooden handle. The kind a detective might carry, or an old city cop. Byron’s grandfather had been a police officer in Detroit. His service gun was framed in Bryon’s father’s office. It was almost the same.
“Why did you take it?”
“Because I needed it. I’ll bury it. No one will know.”
Mary walked back to the dog. “But Babe was trying to get sweet and brought this dog to our house. Adopted it. Made Mom name it,” she said and kicked at the dead dog’s spotted belly.
“She called it Ox. Like the story.”
“Babe and the Blue Ox. Like it was some kind of joke.”
“Oh.” Byron’s hands were sweating and sticking together. He rubbed them on his jeans.
“So when they were all gone, I took the gun and the dog out here.” Mary poked at the dog’s empty eye socket with the barrel of the gun. “Bang.”
“Don’t be mad at me.”
Mary took a couple of crow hops on the mud flat, like she was going to throw the gun, but then she stopped. She walked back to Byron and the dog.
“I should bury it, right? The mud will eat it up. The salt too.”
“Dad will be in jail for just ten years, I think. It was in hot blood.”
“I don’t know.”
“He was really mad. I called him about the dog.”
“Yeah.” Byron’s head felt light. He wished he cared where Mary’s watch was. He wished, more than anything, that the gun and Mary and the dog were not real. That they were sea trash and dead gulls, laid up on the tide line and rotting.
“Do you want to shoot it? There’s still bullets. I only used two.” Mary held the gun out to Byron.
“I don’t want to.”
“If you don’t, it’s because you’ll tell,” she said. Like it was a fact, and she had known all along what his answer was going to be.
“I won’t tell.”
“Have you ever shot anything before?” She aimed the gun at Byron’s foot, and watched him step back.
“Stop that. And no.”
“You’re pretty afraid, huh?” She smiled that too-thin-tooth smile at him again, and pulled the hammer of the revolver back, pulled it with her whole left hand, until it clicked and held fast.
“No. It’s just not safe. Someone will hear it.”
“Shoot the dog.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You can kiss me again.”
Mary dug in her pocket.
Byron watched the gun in her other hand, the barrel swinging all over, and wondered who this girl was that had found him on the marsh. There was something different about her—something old broken or something new grown. The way she stood close to him. The way she hovered around the dog, and needed to hurt it—to mangle it. Mary had always been strong willed, but she also cried for roadkill. In the summers, she and Byron pulled turtles from swimming pools. They watched birds. For an entire day, they followed a cat that came off a boat in the marina, trying to feed it. To pet it. Through boat yards and up trees and under trailers, they followed that cat, and Mary had never asked Byron to kiss her.
Mary’s hand came out of her pocket with a piece of gum. She popped it into her mouth.
“One kiss. One shot.” She held out the gun to Byron again, the barrel pointing at his stomach.
Byron stepped close to her and took the gun. He aimed it at the dog, at the ugly hole Mary had already shot into its face. Just one, he thought. Then I can go home. Throw the gun in the river and go home.
“First,” Mary said and reached her arm around Byron’s waist. She grabbed at his skinny buttocks and pulled him close until his hips touched her own, their foreheads bumping gently. Mary matched her lips to Byron’s, and, even as he felt the weight of the gun in his hand, he felt the touch of her tongue on his, the hard muscle of it knocking around the inside of his mouth. Her eyes were open and shocking blue. It was his second kiss, and it was good, he thought. Even with the dog and the teeth and the gun, it was good.
Sweat rolled into Byron’s eye and burned until he squeezed it shut. His hands felt miles away, and he wondered if there was a rock buried in the mud that might send the shot into his own face instead of the dog’s. He pulled the trigger, and the gun kicked in his hand. The report drove a black bird from an oak. An egret glared from across the marsh.
“You missed,” Mary said.
Byron opened his eyes. There was a clean hole in the mud just below the dog’s head. It might have been a fiddler crab’s home—one of millions. Relief and nausea rolled through him, his shoulders sagged, and still Mary held him close with her fingers hooked through the belt loops of his jeans.
“Yeah,” he said. Blood rang in his temples. He tried to pull away from Mary, but she held him close.
“One more,” she said, her breath brushing Byron’s cheek. She had a light, sweet smell. “Just one.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I was waiting for you to come out here,” she said softly, still holding on to his pants and pulling him now, just a little, so that he had to step with her towards the dog. Like a dance. “I heard the bus and waited for you.”
She kissed him again, sucking at his lower lip.
“Shoot it this time. With your eyes open,” she said. She reached for the pistol in his hand. She cocked it roughly. She wrapped her hand around his and the handle of the gun.
She smelled like honey. Honey and that gum.
“Wait,” he said.
“How do you feel?” she asked. She bent at the knees, pulling Byron by the hand until the pistol pressed against the dog’s bloated side. The smell of the dog interlaced with the smell of Mary; it was sugary-sick.
“Wait,” Byron said. He tried to pull away again and could not.
Mary leaned in to kiss him once more. Her finger snaked over his to the trigger.
“Shh,” she breathed.
“No,” Byron said and shoved her away. He leveled the gun at the horizon and fired. He saw there was a boat behind the sights, miles away and cutting its way across the sound. He worked the pistol’s action and fired two more times before he dropped the pistol on the mud next to the dog.
“You didn’t have to waste them all,” Mary said.
She watched him closely.
Byron looked back at the dog and imagined Mary leading it out, her spindly hand wrapped beneath its collar, to the mud to be shot and left. Somehow, the leaving seemed worse. He stooped and dug his arms under carcass until he had the thing secure against his body. He lifted the dog.
“What are you doing?” Mary asked.
“Take the gun.”
Mary picked up the gun and followed Byron across the marsh to the community dock. At the dock, she threw the pistol into the water.
Byron turned with the dog and saw that he and Mary were alone. Palms leaned out over the water from the mud bank behind them, as if straining to get a closer look, their root-ball feet clinging to the shore. Dead trees lay snaking and grey just under the surface, all reaching out to the dock where Mary and Byron stood. Soon, they would break away and float out with the tide, or else sink to the bottom and rot. Some of them were shade trees and some of them beanpoles and all of them were doomed from their first sprout to drown in the Lincoln River. A hard wind blew in off the sound and tore a few fronds from the palm trees, picking them up like dandelion spores and dropping them where it pleased.
Byron held the dog over the water. “Say something nice about it,” he told Mary.
“What?” She said from behind him.
Mary was silent.
“Was it friendly?” he asked.
A man shouted from somewhere on the land above the dock. Someone coming to investigate the shots.
“Byron,” Mary said.
“And it was named Ox?” Byron continued.
“We don’t have time.” Mary grasped at Byron’s sleeve.
“Was it a good dog?” he asked.
“Good.” Byron let the dog fall into the river. From behind him, he heard the ringing of Mary’s shoes on the steel ramp of the community dock. The dog bobbed for a while and then sunk away. Byron heard the shouting of men on the land above him, and then he heard nothing at all.