“If you barf on me, I’ll kill you,” said Barlow, casually enough to be believed.
Pike lay on his back in the dirt of a vacant lot with the older, and much larger, Barlow pressing a knee into his sternum. He felt very much like throwing up under the 16-year-old boy’s weight.
Barlow was dumping the content of Pike’s school backpack onto the ground with increasing frustration as nothing of value spilled out.
“There’s nothing here!” He threw the bag into a sea of Scotchbroom. “Why don’t you have anything but school shit? Huh?”
Pike had no air to answer and no answer that would satisfy Barlow anyway. Suddenly, his eyes rolled back and he began to shake with convulsions, slobbering and foaming at the mouth.
Barlow recoiled, then lept backwards. “Holy shit,” he muttered to himself. He scanned the lot for potential witnesses.
He prodded Pike with one sneaker. “Hey, kid. Come on. Get up.”
Pike thrashed about more wildly.
“Fuck this shit,” said Barlow then he bolted towards the horse pasture behind the lot.
After a moment, Pike stopped shaking then sat up. He wiped his face on his sleeves then tracked down his bag. He scooped his stuff from the dirt and set off for home.
Rather than follow the streets home, Pike took to the woods. The streets were not safe to him. Sometimes Pike wondered how the other kids in the neighborhood could be so exposed on the sidewalks but he came up empty.
The woods were dense with massive evergreen trees and completely choked with groundcover rising up three feet high. You didn’t go anywhere in the woods without a trail. Thankfully one faint path led to the back fence at his house.
Pike threw his pack over the chain link and scampered after it. He grabbed his bag then scurried into the shadows, his eyes never leaving the windows of the house. The outline of his mother passed the kitchen window without pausing.
Crouched over, Pike stepped carefully to the rusted sheet metal shed. From behind a heap of rotting firewood, he removed a long plastic box. From inside, he took a pellet rifle and a small box of pellets.
Five minutes later, he was deep into the woods. Pike knew every rabbit trail within miles. Today he just wanted to be outside alone so he wandered without a destination in mind.
He sat on a large rock and pulled an energy bar from a hidden pocket in his pack. Barlow was too impatient and stupid to examine the bag for hidden treasures. Thankfully.
From up ahead somewhere he heard barking and growling. Serious growling, like a dog facing a threat. Pike slung his pack on and grabbed his rifle. As he hurried down the path he pumped the handle on the rifle and loaded a pellet into the chamber.
As the barking grew closer, there was another animal sound that Pike couldn’t place. His mind raced through the possibilities. A black bear would be unlikely to engage with a dog, preferring to mind its own business. A cougar might, though.
Pike picked up the pace. A cougar wouldn’t be a threat just to a dog. He was small enough to look tasty to a big cat. Maybe a dog and a boy together could make the cat rethink his dinner plans?
The afternoon light was fading quickly, especially this deep in the woods. Pike considered storming in, guns blazing, hoping the surprise and noise would win the day. But what if the dog was dead by then? What if the cat wasn’t afraid and instead turned on him, too?
He could see shadows moving between the tree where the animal fight seemed to be taking place. He walked as close as he dared, then army crawled through the thick, nasty, shredding underbrush. The sounds of the life-and-death struggle made the hairs stand up on his neck and arms.
When he reached a spot where he could, mostly, see the tiny clearing, he stopped. The dog yelped and fell to the ground twenty yards away, its eyes looking straight at Pike. He tried to guess if they were pleading for help or for him to run away and save himself. Whatever the big black dog wanted, Pike wasn’t leaving without a fight.
The rifle came up to Pike’s eye and he searched for a target between the leaves and branches. The clearing was growing darker by the minute.
Pike held his breath.
He caught a shimmer of teeth, barely, and he squeezed the trigger. The pellet struck with a clink and the teeth stopped moving forward.
With every shred of willpower he could muster, Pike forced himself to relax rather than tense up. Tension caused unnatural movement and sounds, he had learned. He controlled his breathing until it was soundless.
He heard loud sniffing of the air. Then the animal turned and ran off.
Pike quickly reloaded the rifle, pumped it three times, then popped up with a blood-curdling warcry.
At least, that was the intention. Being not-quite-eleven, it sounded like you would imagine, half scratchy, half screechy. But there was only the dog to hear it, so it didn’t matter.
And there was only the dog. The cat had, in fact, run off.
Pike stepped to the dog’s side then scanned the woods in all directions, rifle at the ready, eyes sharp for movement.
He knelt by the dog. A big male Doberman with deep gashes in his side and across his head, narrowly missing his eyes. Blood ran freely.
As he stood up, Pike notice the footprints of the other animal. They weren’t like a cat at all but he had no time to think about that.
He peeled off his jacket, shirt, t-shirt, and belt. The t-shirt went onto the wounds on the side of the dog. He held it in place with his belt.
As fast as he could, Pike rummaged for a pair of downed branches about the same size. He snapped off the twigs as best he could.
If he had time, he would have tried some kind of cross-bracing but he could see the dog was dying. Instead, he twisted the shirt and jacket into ropes. He would have to lash the dog to the poles.
After placing the poles on each side of the dog, Pike worked the jacket underneath the branches and the back legs of the dog. He cinched the jacket as tight as he dared and then knotted it.
The shirt went behind the dog’s front legs. Pike had left some stubs of twigs to hold the fabric in place. Tying the shirt around the damaged chest of the dog was the most likely time to get bitten but it only let out a small whimper when Pike cinched the sleeves.
The backpack slid down the poles to work as a pillow for the dog.
Pike slung on the rifle then crouched to lift the poles. He stood up easily enough but dragging it was difficult over the rough trail covered with roots and rocks. It was also narrow. Branches clawed at the litter and slapped the dog’s wounds.
His arms and hands ached within minutes but he kept going until he was afraid he’d drop the poles. The dog kept looking at Pike, not pleading any longer but just watching.
Nobody would know if he quit. Nobody would think badly of him if they did know. This dog weighed almost as much as he did. Hell, maybe more. And he had a long ways to go yet.
But Pike would know.
The thought of leaving the dog to die became unbearable.
“You are messed up in a major way, buddy,” Pike told the dog. “But I’m not leaving you behind. Hang in there. It’s going to take awhile but we’re going to make it.”
Pike place a hand under the dog’s chin and gave him a little scratch.
“Major. That’s what I’ll call you.”
It was well past midnight when Pike dragged Major onto a sidewalk. He looked left then right. Now what? he thought. Every effort had been focused on getting to this point without thinking about after.
Home was out of the question.
Then he thought of where to get help. “I know where to go, Major. Just the ticket but it’s a ways. I will get you there, buddy.”
If Major came loose Pike was sure he would not have the strength to get him back onto the litter so Pike tightened the knots, staining the fabric from his own bleeding hands. Pike looked down, noticing for the first time hundreds of scratches across his exposed upper body.
It didn’t matter. He lifted the poles and set out again.
The lack of traffic allowed the pair to travel down the middle of the small town streets.
“Where did you come from, Major?” Pike asked the dog. He needed the one-sided conversation to keep going.
“I live back that way a mile or so. That’s not where I’m taking you, as you can tell. The people there, my parents, they wouldn’t know what to do for you. They’d do the wrong thing, for sure. It’s just how they are.”
Pike quickened his wobbly pace as he felt his strength ebbing away. He had to make it and that’s all there was to it.
“It’s going to be OK, Major. I know somebody who will fix you right up.”
Major gave a little moan.
“Well, sure, she is kinda pretty. But smart, too. You’ll like her, I promise. How come you were in the woods all alone, buddy?”
An hour later Pike was pounding on a locked door under a buzzing, flickering light. He slumped to the ground and wrapped an arm around Major’s neck. The last thing he heard before passing out was the sound of footsteps inside.