The grave was already dug when the morning broke like a wound over the yard. McCray sat in an iron rocking chair, and at his feet the dog lay dying. The man wore undershorts and leather work boots, sipped coffee from a thin white cup. Every little while the dog would thrash and McCray would lay his boot on her chest until she was still except for the heaving of her breath.
Beattie—nearly nine years old—came slowly from the house, rubbing her eyes with her fists. She wore a nightgown and dirty wellingtons, went slowly to the dog and knelt before her. McCray watched closely without moving.
“She’s sick, Daddy,” the girl said.
“I know, baby.”
“Can she stand?”
“She’s been trying for hours.”
“Is she going to die?”
“Can’t say for sure. But probably.”
Beattie took the tail of her nightgown and wiped the slobber from the dog’s mouth. “It’s going to be okay,” she said. “One way or the other.” She looked out across the yard. “Is Momma home?” she asked.
“Not yet,” McCray said. He stood up and stretched his back.
By midmorning it was already a hundred degrees. Beattie nursed the dog, which could not move except to seize, and McCray stood on the porch, smoking a cigarette and imagining his pistol. Sweat loomed on his forehead. “Beattie,” he said. “Ain’t you hungry?”
“But don’t you think we ought to eat something?”
They went inside. McCray opened a tin of corned-beef hash and left it to sizzle in a black skillet. “You like cat food?” he asked.
When the hash was hot, McCray sat the fry-pan in the middle of the table on a stack of old magazines, and the two ate with forks straight from the dish.
“I like your breakfast,” Beattie said.
“I wish it were better.”
“It’s good enough. But I do wish Momma was here.”
“Me too,” McCray said. He wasn’t sure whether he was lying.
“Where is she, anyway?”
“No telling. Least not by me.”
“It ain’t a good day for this,” the child said.
“No,” McCray said. “It sure ain’t.”
After they finished eating, Beattie and her father dressed proper and went back out to the yard. Beattie took a glass of water and poured it over the dog’s head. She held a piece of ice in front of her face, but she wouldn’t lick.
McCray couldn’t stand to watch it anymore. He walked into the woods, and as he moved through the trees, thought about his wife. Joyce had been gone three days, her longest leaving yet. He went looking for her the first night on principle, but he didn’t know where she disappeared to. Mostly didn’t care.
It’d started small, just after Beattie was born: locking herself in the bathroom anytime the baby cried, taking long trips to the store and coming home with nothing but magazines. McCray worried holes in his belly every day at work. And as Beattie got older, the leavings got longer. McCray would come home from a twelve-hour shift laying shingles on a hot roof and find Beattie naked on the front room floor, eating crackers from a box, alone except for the dog. Enough to turn any man cold, McCray told himself.
The grave was set at the foot of a tall pine tree. As McCray approached, he heard the shaking of a rattlesnake and stopped quickly, cocking his head and cussing beneath his breath. He bent down and listened for the rattle. It came again softly, muted, as if in a dream. McCray stood, and with the hair on the backs of his arms itching, moved closer to the grave.
In the bottom of the pit, the snake lay coiled—a canebreak, probably four feet long, thick as a man’s forearm. McCray took up the shovel he used to dig the grave from leaned against a tree. He spat at the snake and it struck, hitting its head against the wall of the grave. Before it could regather itself in a knot, McCray lopped off the snake’s head with the shovel. He watched as it writhed headless on the ground, then he scooped it up and flung it into the trees.
When McCray returned to the yard, the dog was dead and Beattie stood over her, crying openly. McCray tried to close the dog’s eyes, but they sprung back open.
“They won’t stay shut,” Beattie said. “I already tried.”
“Did she go too hard?”
“No. Not at all. I almost didn’t know it happened.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Good as it could be, I guess.”
“You want to bury her?” McCray asked.
“Should we wait on Momma?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me neither,” the child said.
By sunset Beattie had quit crying, but her eyes were swollen. She sat in a straight-backed chair, scrubbing at tar spots on her father’s jeans. McCray lay like a patient on the couch, pretending to read a newspaper. Outside, frogs were shrieking.
“Momma’s not coming home tonight, is she?” Beattie asked.
“Darling,” McCray said. “I’ve got no idea.”
“We should bury her. There’s no telling what could turn up in the dark.”
“You’re right,” McCray said.
In the yard, he took the dog by her hind legs and drug her toward the woods. The sky was pink. Beattie followed closely behind, crying again.
At the edge of the woods, the dog’s head began to carom over the roots. Her tongue fell loosely from her mouth, licking at the dirt. McCray stopped and took the dog onto his shoulder, then went on.
Near the grave, in an oak tree with leaves like hands, a Barred owl was perched with the snake McCray killed draped over a branch, tearing at its flesh. When it heard the commotion of the funeral march, it stretched its neck and swallowed quickly, then flew—leaving the snake dangling from the branch like a piece of old rope.
McCray dropped the dog into the hole, and dust rose up from around her. Beattie went to her knees and began shoveling dirt over the carcass with her hands. Her father watched, stopping her every now and again to pack the loam with the sole of his boot. When they finished, it was dark, and the mosquitoes were humming like a busted old refrigerator. McCray picked up his shovel and leaned against it.
“She was a good dog,” Beattie said.
“One of the best I ever had.”
“Didn’t bite. Never run off.”
“Sometimes you find one like that.”
“I wish she didn’t die.” The child sniffed, rubbed her forehead on the arm of McCray’s shirt, and squeezed his fingers tightly. “Do you know any prayers?” she asked.
“Not off hand.”
“Is that healthy?”
McCray thought for a moment. “Probably not,” he said. A mosquito landed on the back of his neck and he slapped it. When he pulled his hand away, there was blood.
McCray went through the house turning on all the lights. Beattie knelt by the door with her hands around her ankles. When the house was lit, she walked to the bathroom and started the shower. Once she got beneath the stream, she called for McCray. He went into the bathroom, sat on the commode, and sang.
Beattie dried herself and dressed in a clean nightgown. McCray brushed the tangles from her hair. They both lay down in the child’s bed, and McCray read slowly from a book about bats.
“I like little bats,” Beattie said.
“Me too,” McCray said. “Taste kind of like squirrel.”
“What? I’m only messing.”
“I know. Will you wake me up if Momma comes home?”
“If it ain’t too late.”
“Please don’t forget. I won’t be naughty. I promise.”
“Okay. We’ll see.”
“Love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, darling,” McCray said.
While the girl slept, McCray sat on the hearth, smoking a cigarette and whittling at a piece of pine with a long skinning knife. In the early hours of morning, a car pulled into the driveway with its headlamps off. McCray didn’t move. Footsteps fell quietly on the back stairs, and the doorknob muttered as it turned. Joyce wriggled sideways through the door.
“Hello, Sam,” she said, when she realized her husband was still awake.
McCray flicked an ash into the fireplace. “Morning,” he said.
Joyce closed the door quietly behind her and walked toward the hearth. “I thought you’d be in bed.”
“Prefer to be. But circumstances rise.”
“Don’t act so high and mighty. Beattie is asleep. I know you.” She reached into McCray’s breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette, stuck it in her mouth. “Got fire?” she asked.
McCray laid down his whittling things. He pulled a lighter from his pants and struck it, held the flame to his wife’s mouth. “The dog died today,” he said. “I wish it had been you.”
Joyce pulled smoke into her lungs and rolled her eyes. She backed away from McCray and he let the flame disappear.
“Don’t act tough, either. You’ll make me laugh.”
“It started last night. I was sitting right here, like I am now. She came walking from the back door and just fell down, drooling. Then she started shaking with seizures and growling like I never heard her do. So I picked her up and carried her out to the yard, laid her on the grass, and just sat around, waiting on her to die. I was hoping she would go quick and I could bury her before Beattie woke up, but she didn’t.”
“You poor man. Is that what you want me to say?”
“I thought about shooting her, but decided against it. Still don’t know if that was right. I’m finding I hardly ever know what’s right.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“But some things just don’t know when to die,” McCray said.
Joyce finished her cigarette and tossed it into the fireplace. “We don’t always have a choice.”
“I went out looking for you the first night.”
“That’s not what I’m getting at. Just listen. I was out riding around, and it was late. I left Beattie here sleeping. The roads were dark and empty, only the light from a gas station or a grocery store every little while. And I was just driving, not paying any attention where I was going.”
McCray stopped and rubbed his hand over his face. “I seen a church I never seen before. Don’t even know where it was. There was no name on it or anything, just a little white chapel set back off the road. And out front there was a sign, backlit with a yellow bulb. It said: stop, drop and roll don’t work in hell. Big black letters. Just that, and nothing else.”
“I never thought of it that way,” Joyce said.
“No,” McCray said. “Me neither. I reckon that’s the point.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I don’t know.”
Joyce laughed, shook her head and walked away. McCray picked up his skinning knife and the piece of pine, went back to whittling.
The sun was already up over the trees when McCray woke. He lay on the couch with pieces of newspaper stretched over his body like a blanket. Beattie had gotten up in the night.
He stood and walked slowly to his bedroom. The walls shook with every step. He found Joyce in the bed, asleep atop the covers. Beattie lay beside her, curled like a bean pod into her mother’s side. She had her nightgown pulled up under her chin, and her two forefingers and thumbs fixed in the shape of a heart around her navel. Light from the window shone in on her. McCray forced himself to smile, but his pulse threatened to choke him.
“She’s home,” the child said. In a whisper, like a secret.
Robert Maynor lives on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. He has worked as a commercial plumber, sprinkler man, dishwasher, musician, etc. His stories have previously appeared in Blood Orange Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Fall Lines, and Bartleby Snopes. He is the 2018 recipient of the Elizabeth Boatwright Coker Fellowship in Fiction from the South Carolina Academy of Authors.