This story is by Roseann Cotton and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Shovel in hand, Caleb glanced around for signs of anyone as he slipped from the barn. With any luck, by the time his grandmother’s spoiled, high strung Pekingese dog was found, if ever, she’d be just a collection of bones. He surveyed the rear of the barn to pick just the right spot to bury the mutt. No one ever went behind the run-down building as it abutted a row of towering Douglas fir trees, barely enough room for a burly six-foot man to squeeze between. Digging a makeshift grave presented a challenge in that confined area, but that didn’t deter Caleb.
Beads of perspiration dripped from his face in the mid-August heat, his plaid shirt clung to his upper torso, and his throat begged for a sip of water, but Caleb toiled on, pausing only to rub his forearm across his sweaty forehead. He pushed the blade into the firm ground, tossing shovelfuls of dirt aside, creating a small mound. Caleb figured three feet deep was sufficient to prevent a stray animal from detecting and digging, but he stopped at two feet depth. Dropping the shovel, he entered the barn through a side door and approached the dog. Lulu lay where she had landed after he had kicked her when she had growled, baring her teeth and pulling his shirttail with enough strength that a chunk of cloth ripped, dangling from Caleb’s shirt by a thin thread. Lulu’s body had sailed through the air like a football. Her shriek had pierced the musty air as her body thudded to the ground. Caleb had run to the motionless dog. Blood oozed from her mouth. “Oh shit!”
Caleb had shuffled back and forth around the barn, sure his heart would burst through his chest. Lulu and his grandmother’s other pet, a male German shepherd named Wagner, meant more to her than life itself. When her thirty-year-old son died from leukemia, she stopped showing affection to anyone, including his mother. She lavished all her love and devotion on the two canines. Caleb hated them. When he was orphaned at fifteen and came to live with his grandparents, Grandma wouldn’t – or couldn’t – give her only grandchild any attention, unlike his Grandpa with whom he had enjoyed a special bond . . . hunting, fishing, and scouting for Indian arrowheads. Two years earlier when Caleb was twenty, his grandfather died when the rear tire of the tractor rolled over his chest, crushing it. His grandmother retreated into her own little world, caring only for her two rotten dogs. She treated her grandson with indifference, as though she resented his very presence. Caleb’s loathing toward his grandmother and the stupid dogs festered. As soon as he had the money, he planned to blow this joint and move as far away as possible, Antarctica if necessary.
And now he had accidentally killed one of her precious “children.” What to do? Looking at the dog’s corpse, he bent over, slapping his knee, grinning ear to ear. This death will destroy Grandma. Ha! Ha! Even better, not knowing the fate of Lulu will torture her. I’ll bury the mutt and suggest a coyote or some other animal got to it. It’ll be my secret.
Even with gloves on, Caleb hated touching Lulu. He lifted her, then poked his head out the side barn door. All clear. With a pleasure that invigorated him, he crammed the body into the hole and shoved the mound of dirt on top, dancing a slight jig as his boots pounded the dirt flat. For added concealment, he picked up a few dead fir branches and placed them over the grave. Standing back and tilting his head skyward, he snickered. “Rest in peace, dear Lulu!”
Lulu’s disappearance plunged Grandma into despair. She sat in her rocking chair on the porch of the two-story farmhouse for hours each day, staring at nothing in particular, as though in a permanent trance. The only thing she showed an interest in was Wagner, constantly burying her tear-soaked face in his fur. To hell with Caleb. Although consumed with downright hatred for the pampered dog and disdain for Grandma, he had a sense of loyalty to his Grandpa and continued to oversee the central Oregon farm, working from dawn to dusk harvesting the wheat and corn crops. He tried to involve Grandma in decisions about the farm, but she shooed him away. A couple of times he strayed to the barn and stood grinning over the grave. It still amazed him how calm he was after burying Lulu and how he was able to function as though nothing had happened since the unfortunate mishap three weeks before.
One evening, Caleb pointed to ominous dark clouds in the distance. “Thunderstorm’s coming.”
“I’m going inside,” Grandma said, rising from the rocker. Petting Wagner, she pointed to the yard. He ambled down the steps to do his business. “Caleb, I’m leaving the door open so he can get in while I’m in the bathroom.”
Caleb jumped off the porch and headed to the barn to secure the doors. Caleb latched the side door first. All too soon the sky became as black as Zorro’s cape and jagged bolts of white lightning illuminated the blackness. Thunder rumbled and quarter size hailstones pelted the parched ground. After securing the barn’s front double doors, Caleb lowered his head and covered it with his hands as he raced to the porch. He wiggled to dislodge the hailstones hitchhiking on his body. Half an hour later as he finished donning dry clothes, his grandmother’s shouting drowned out the thunder and lightning concert.
Caleb slipped on his boots and raced downstairs two steps at a time. His grandmother dashed outside as fast as her seventy-six-year-old body would allow, pointing toward the barn. Glowing flames leaped from the roof and hot, swirling embers cascaded downward to the ground still blanketed with hail. Caleb started to run toward the barn, but his grandmother grabbed his arm. “No use. All the hay piled inside has fueled the fire. It’s too late. Don’t bother.”
Caleb sunk to his knees.
“Where’s Wagner?” Grandma asked.
Caleb leapt up. “Isn’t he inside the house?”
Grandma began yelling at the top of her lungs. “Wagner! Wagner! Come to Mama!”
Caleb lifted his arm, silencing the woman. “Listen.” He leaned his head toward the barn. Above the noise of the crackling fire they both heard barking coming from inside.
Grandma clutched her chest. “Wagner! He’s in the barn!” She headed in that direction.
Caleb grasped her. “You can’t go. The barn’s completely engulfed.”
Bugged by insomnia the past few nights, Caleb had lain staring at the ceiling, wrestling with increasing guilt, remorse, and even compassion. Grandma had lost a son, daughter, husband, and cherished pet. And now the terror and determination in Grandma’s eyes as she jerked free and headed toward the burning structure propelled him to action. He had no time to waste. I’ve been terrible to her and the dogs. I’ve got to rescue Wagner.
“Grandma, stay put.” Caleb dashed to the barn door and unlatched it, hoping the dog would come bombing out. He didn’t. Caleb entered and crawled along the barn’s edge, blinded by the thick, gray smoke, and gasping for air. Lady luck surfaced as he bumped into a whimpering mass of fur. Relief enveloped Caleb.
Several days later, sitting side by side on the porch sipping iced tea, Grandma patted Caleb’s hand. I’ve treated him poorly. I’ve come to my senses thanks to the fire. He deserves to know I love him. “Thank you, my grandson, for risking your life to rescue Wagner.”
Caleb shot her a meek smile. He squeezed her hand affectionately. For the first time since – he couldn’t recall – he felt close to his grandmother. He silently vowed to stay on the farm and be there for her. Should I confess what happened to Lulu? Would it destroy our improving relationship? Indecision gripped him.
Wagner, recovering from a slight case of smoke inhalation, darted up the stairs, excitedly wagging his tail. He put his teeth on Grandma’s pants and pulled the material. “What is it?” she asked. Wagner ran toward the charred remains of the barn. Grandma followed, and when she reached the spot where the dog was pacing round and round, tongue hanging out, the stench overwhelmed her. She backed against a singed tree, gagging as her hand covered her nose and mouth. Inches from her feet lay the decomposing body of her beloved Lulu, exposed after Wagner had discovered the grave and begun digging.
Grandma couldn’t resist touching Lulu. As she pinched her nose and struggled to kneel, she noticed a cloth fragment protruding from underneath the body. Shock and disbelief pierced her heart as she recognized it matched Caleb’s torn plaid shirt.