The first whisper in the dark.
Terrier, I’m pregnant.
I dreamed a desperate dream of Kimmy. It was a vivid memory fueled by my own unhinged fantasies. When I was on the ranch the other hands gave me a wide berth and made me sleep in a fruit cellar converted to a one-man bunk room. I had a habit of lashing out. I talked and shouted in my sleep. I heard myself speaking and tried to answer. I saw her sitting on the edge of my bed, crying, her face turned away from me. I’d reach for her and snap awake covered in sweat, my head ringing.
I had the dream and the dream had me for the fourth night in a row.
We were in the Commack Motor Inn, one of the pay-by-the-hour motels we used to stop into for a little alone time. Intimacy and privacy weren’t among the benefits of living in a large house with a criminal family. My father had retired from the bent life by then but never went anywhere. My mother watched over my baby sister Dale, and Old Shep, my grandfather, who was starting to lose himself to Alzheimer’s, his personality seeping out an old gunshot wound in the back of his head. My uncles Mal and Grey stuck close to home with their schemes and grifts. My brother Collie was the only one with enough respect to work his bad deeds day and night elsewhere. And Kimmy’s parents hated my guts and kept watch for me like retirees guarding the So Cal coastline from the Japanese in ’42.
We were catching our breath, lying back in each other’s arms, holding tight. Her wet hair raked my cheek. I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. I blew out a stream of smoke and offered the butt to her. She took it and ground it out against the side of the scarred nightstand. She pressed her lips to my ear.
“Terrier, I’m pregnant.”
The blinds had been drawn halfway against the parking lot lights. The air conditioner cranked away on high doing a shitty job. It was dark in our room and I couldn’t quite make out the expression on her face. A couple of sparks still clung to the nightstand, glowing red. Her voice was steady, but I couldn’t tell if she was happy or anxious or both. Neither of us had hit twenty yet.
I said, “We’re not naming her after a fucking dog.”
It made Kimmy laugh, a sound that eased the tension that was always inside me. I never knew it was there until she relieved me of it, and then I let out a breath and my muscles loosened and ached.
“Her?” she said. “So you want a girl?”
“I suppose I do.”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “I like the idea of saying, ‘I’m going home to my girls.’”
My ghosts caught up to me again. I couldn’t move without inviting them along. They came and went and judged. My eyes opened in the pale dawn and they were with me. My dead brother, my dead uncles, they stood nearby, ready to resume their action. My best friend Chub was there too. He was going to die if I didn’t help him. A part of me wanted it to happen. The rest knew that he and I were bound by our shared history. If I couldn’t save him I wouldn’t be able to save myself. He watched me steadily. Blood bubbled from his lips as he said, I’m still alive, you prick.
We were on death watch again. My brother Collie’s had lasted more than five years before he’d been walked down that insanely white prison corridor. After a brief inevitable show of defiance, kicking and brawling with the screws, he’d forgone his last words, been strapped down to a table and given the needle.
I watched as his blood turned to poison, hoping he might try to connect with me in those final seconds and explain why he’d gone on his killing spree. But his hateful gaze said nothing and showed no remorse. He sneered right up to the moment that the second plunger depressed and his lungs grew paralyzed. His eyes were stone but I could forgive him that. He was taking his last breath in front of an audience of witnesses who all wanted him in hell.
When he went down he left the rest of the family reeling, and despite all our stoic resolve we were unable to take any more loss. My uncle Mal had been murdered a few days beforehand, knifed in the backyard. My uncle Grey, so far as my parents knew, had gone on the long grift and was living the sweet life somewhere full of sex and satin, maybe in A.C. or Reno.
My father had lost three of the most significant people in his life within a matter of a week, and now his best friend lay dying under the kitchen table.
It had been three days since JFK had eaten or sipped any water. He was ten and his muzzle was thick with gray fur. He was still massive and muscular, with a flat broad forehead and fierce features that hadn’t lost any of their intensity.
He didn’t seem to be in any serious pain as he continued to grow weaker. We huddled around him on the kitchen floor like our ancestors squatting in front of a fire trying to keep the terrors of the night away.
JFK would occasionally look around the room, his glance landing on each of us in turn. Every time his eyes settled on my mother she whispered his name and stroked him between the ears. My father, a reticent man at best, tried to keep up a stream of buoyant chatter for JFK’s sake. I barely recognized his contrived, cheerful voice. My sister Airedale kept petting JFK’s haunches, saying, “That’s our boy, that’s our boy.” His dry tongue fell from his mouth as he struggled to lift his head in an effort to kiss each of us. He let out a sigh every now and again, his nubby tail wagging once or twice, before settling back to try to sleep.
“That’s our boy.”
It was time to put him down. We all knew it. Even my old man knew it. But my father, always a cool realist in all other matters, refused to discuss bringing JFK to the vet. My mother argued softly and begged him to change his mind. He wouldn’t. I sided with him at first because like him I was weak when it mattered most.
It was the cruelty of love. Dale, with a tight resolution marring her beauty, said, “Daddy, it’s time.” She gripped his stubbled cheek roughly, trying to snap him from his daze. He was short and wiry and Dale towered over him now, but his terrible staunchness made itself known. It was the thing inside him that couldn’t be moved or persuaded.
My father’s thousand-yard stare looked through all of us. Every muscle in his body stood out rigid and straining. His silence brought a barometric pressure to the room, like the hushed anxious period before a storm hit.
Old Shepherd sat in his wheelchair in the corner of the living room, in front of the television watching cartoons. JFK’s slow dying had managed to reach through his cognitive fog where almost everything else had failed. He now had odd moments of lucidity where he called to the dog, asking if he wanted to go for a walk in the park. Gramp sounded childlike, overly eager, and a little frightened.
By the fourth day JFK’s breathing had grown much rougher. He wheezed all morning long and about noon let out a little puddle of urine with blood in it. I went to the shed and got a shovel and dug a hole under the apple tree where JFK sometimes lay out in the sun. When I stepped back inside my mother was on her knees cleaning the floor with a towel. My old man was pretending he was somewhere else.
She said, “Pinscher, this has to stop.” She stood and put her hand to his powerful arm and I saw the tendons and veins in her wrist bulging as she squeezed and squeezed harder to try to gain his attention. “You can’t let it go on. He’s in pain. He’s in terrible pain.”
My father wouldn’t look at her. He stood in the front door with a chill autumn breeze blowing in through the screen. He seemed to be admiring the veranda. He’d spent a few thousand nights out there staring into the neighboring woods, looking over the arch of his life, with JFK curled at his feet.
I had to travel deep to discover what remained of my courage and mercy. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot left anymore. “We have to take him in.”
“I’m not putting him down. We . . . we don’t have the right. I wouldn’t want anyone to steal my last remaining hours. Not even a minute. I won’t rob him of his.”
Anyone else might have found that ironic, my father being a career thief and an excellent second-story man before he retired to sit on his porch and drink beer, bored out of his fucking head.
But he wasn’t talking about himself or the dog. He was thinking of Collie’s victims, especially the kids.
“You think that’s wrong?” he asked me.
He nodded once, his expression shifting from stonewall to slightly annoyed and back again. He sat at the table directly above JFK and looked everywhere except at the dog.
My mother tried one last time to make him see reason. Her anger was beginning to break through. “Pinscher, he’s in agony. Let’s give him a little peace and respect.”
“You think that’ll make any difference?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know you don’t, but you’re wrong.”
My old man shrugged at that. I noticed how his hair swung back and forth into his eyes as he lifted his shoulders. He’d always worn a crew cut but he’d been letting his hair grow out the last couple of months. It was a small sign that he was changing inside and it worried me.
He asked me to get him a beer. I pulled one from the fridge and sat the bottle in front of him. He emptied half of it in one pull.
My mother shot me a look. I knew what it meant. We were going to have to buck him. I was going to have to carry JFK to the backseat of my car and take him to the vet on my own. I knew my father wouldn’t try to stop me. His conscience was already in a frenzy and I wondered if he’d hold it against me forever. We Rands didn’t forgive easily. We Rands had long memories until Alzheimer’s turned our brains to tapioca.
JFK moaned groggily as I lifted him. I shouldered through the screen door and carried him down the walk to my car. My mother followed. She sat in back with him, using her thumbs to clear her tears away. After a few seconds my father climbed into the passenger seat. He stared ahead through the windshield, arms crossed over his chest, the black veins crawling across the backs of his powerful hands.
My mother said, “If you’re going with Terry then I’ll stay here with Gramp.”
“I’m going with Terry,” my father said.
JFK slept the entire ride to the vet’s. I found myself hoping he would die before we arrived. I wanted him to go naturally without losing a minute of his allotted time. I didn’t want him to struggle to his very last breath. I didn’t want him to have to get the hot shot like Collie had.
When we arrived at the vet’s office JFK’s eyes were open and he was peering at me. His tail thumped twice, tongue hanging. My father led the way inside the place. He looked like he was about to knock over a bank.
I carried JFK in, hugging him to me, his face turned against my chest and bloody urine leaking over my shirt. I didn’t sign anything or talk to anyone at the front counter, I just lugged him directly into the examining room and told the lady vet tech that it was time to put him down. Her name tag read Missy. She asked questions about his age, eating habits, stool density, vomiting, and pet insurance. I wondered why any of that shit mattered now. My father said nothing. Missy started to slowly back out of the room with a patronizing smile smeared across her face. I finally managed to explain the situation.
Missy repeated her questions and I answered as best I could. She said the vet would be in to see us soon. JFK weakened further while we waited.
I patted his side and wished him an easier death. I said, “It’s okay, boy, it’s all right.” My father knew what I really meant and covered my hand with his, forcing me to stop.
The vet had an even bigger name tag the size of a sheriff’s badge. Dr. George Augustyn. It was authoritative, a name to impress. I’d met him before but hadn’t seen him in over five years. Dr. George had the beefcake good looks of a B actor who’d made it in the biz on the strength of his smile and chin dimple.
He kept calling JFK “Johnny” and tried to get him to sit up. JFK was always eager to please and made a hell of an effort, whining as he attempted to clamber to his feet on the slippery metal counter surface. He couldn’t make it. Dr. George made notations and listened to the dog’s chest and belly. I kept a hand on JFK’s front paw, rubbing my thumb back and forth across the pad of his sole. It felt like I stood there doing that for hours. I couldn’t stop.
George had a code of ethics to follow. He refused to give JFK the shot without giving him a full examination first.
I noticed that on the paperwork in JFK’s folder they had his breed down as “pit bull.” I almost corrected them by explaining that he was an American Staffordshire terrier. I realized how stupid it was to care about something like that right now and kept my mouth shut. But a moment later it seemed like the most important thing in the world.
I squawked, “You’ve got it wrong. He’s an American Staffordshire.” I wagged my chin as if to clear my head, but it wasn’t helping. Luckily, everyone ignored me anyway.
My thumb kept sliding back and forth across JFK’s paw. Dr. George told Missy that they needed to do X-rays. The two of them, wearing scrubs covered in dancing kittens, managed to heft JFK into their arms. My father and I began to file out and follow them. The vet said “Stay here” with a commanding note.
Excerpted from The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom Piccirilli. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Piccirilli. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.