The Dog on Taylor Road

There's a long trucking road down in West Virginia where some boys go to become men.  Likewise, some men go there to turn back into boys. 
   Taylor Road, set alongside rolling hills, reaches all the way to Kentucky.
   On a crisp May day, a family of three—single father and two teenage boys—drove down Taylor Road, heading to an uncle's house in Kentucky.
   “Dad,” the youngest, Kyle, says. “Can we stop?”

   Richard, the father, has been so caught up in the scenery that he hasn’t realized his son has spoke. Dandelions, a green hill’s diamonds, poke out from the luscious forests of ground bound green. Rolling hills spread out far into the distance, so far that Richard doesn’t dare try to look for the furthest ones. It’s like a painting done by a greatest masterpiece, where they’re driving.
   “Why?” the father asks, returning his attention to his boy.
   “I have to use the bathroom.”
   Richard sighs, but nods. He isn’t going to make his thirteen-year-old suffer for who-knew how many miles. He isn’t one to torture his boys. Some parents usually say, ‘Can you wait until we stop?’
   “We’ll stop here soon, son.”
   From the rearview mirror, he catches his youngest son's nod.  Dominique, his oldest, continues to read. It seems like he’s on his second or third book; he hasn't said a word in hours.
   “Dominique, you ok?”
   “Yeah, Dad.” Dominique looks up, revealing a long face, free of blemishes. “I’m ok.”
   “All right. I was just checking.”
   “There’s a rest stop in a mile,” Dominique says.
   Richard turns his attention back to the road. The green sign is right; there is a stop a mile away.
   “See that, Kyle? We’re going to stop here soon.”
   For the next few minutes, Richard continues to drive, struggling with the station wagon. The ’64 Buick LaSebre, while a nice machine, is getting old. It has a tendency to move too fast or too slow if Richard isn’t paying attention.
   It’s a good thing I’m such a careful driver, he thinks, otherwise I might’ve been pulled over by now.
   “Dad, can you turn the radio on?” Kyle asks.
   Richard nods. He’s tempted to offer the front seat to one of his boys, but doesn’t. An argument would only stress him out. He doesn’t need this, not on such a long trip.
   After adjusting the channel until Kyle agreed with what was playing, Richard sets his hand back on the wheel.
   “You already know the radio is shit,” Dominique mutters.
   “Dominique,” Richard scolds.
   “Sorry, Dad. It’s the truth.”
   “Is not!” Kyle cries.
   “Please don’t fight,” Richard begs.
   “Sorry,” the boys mumble.
   The kids have been good for the first little while. Having been going for almost two days, Richard’s surprised they haven’t broken out in fights over something as little as who ate the last ninety-nine-cent bag of cheese puffs.
   Ah well—gotta admire the kids for wanting to brave the long trip to see their uncle Mark.
   Being an only parent was tough, especially when you had to manage two teenage boys.
   The turn-off that leads to the rest stop comes into view. Richard checks his mirrors before he signals, merging into the lane beside him. He slows down as he ascends the hill, pulling into a parking space.
   “Ok,” he says, disengaging the car, looking over his shoulder at Kyle. “Be careful. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into anything.”
   “I won’t.”
   “If someone tries to do anything to you, scream, especially if you’re alone.”
   “I know. You don’t need to tell me.”
   “Do you want me to come in with…”
   “No, it’s ok.” Kyle smiles. His son isn’t rude or condescending, but understanding. Considering he’s a thirteen-year-old boy who’s been going through puberty for the past year, it’s surprising that his personality hadn’t shifted into the more obnoxious of teenage stages.
   Kyle jumps out of the car and makes his way across the parking lot. Only when he disappears into the bathroom can Richard somewhat relax. Kyle wouldn’t be in there for too long.
   “You don’t have to baby him,” Dominique says, unbuckling his seatbelt.
   “He’s old enough to know not to listen to anybody he doesn’t know. He’s not a little kid.”      
   “All right.” Richard sighs, closing his eyes. He swipes a hand over his forehead and comes back with sweat.
   “I’m not trying to be rude.”
   “I know.” Richard opens the door. “Come on. Let’s get out of the car for a few minutes.”
   Richard stretches his back as soon as his feet hit the ground. Dominique walks around the car to stand beside him.
   “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” Richard asks.
   “I don’t. Do you?”
   “No. You do know that we won‘t be stopping again for a little while, right?”
   “Yeah, I know.”
   With that little issue out of the way, Richard looks up just in time to see Kyle running toward them.
   “Sorry,” the boy says.
   “It’s ok, Kyle.”
   Richard smiles, despite the smoldering heat and the blinding light that’s bouncing off the blacktop and into his eyes. He looks around, taking deep breaths of hot but otherwise fresh air.
   It’s ok, he thinks, running a hand over his beard stubble. You’ll be at your brother’s place in a few days. Keep your cool. You don’t want to ruin the trip by getting mad at your kids for no reason.
   He’s been doing well so far—at least, in his opinion.
   “Dad?” Dominique asks.
   “You ok?”
   “I’m ok, son. Just taking advantage of being out of the car.”
   A few more minutes of surveying the area and Richard is ready to get back in. That is, before a dog saunters over to where they are standing. The short-haired, blonde-and-white collie stares at the men and two boys. Always, Richard knows, there are strangers in this place of lonely desolation. This dog is the property of some man’s foolishness, a stray to the modern world.
    The dog sits at their feet, panting, long tongue hanging out the side of its mouth.
   “Hey, boy,” Dominique smiles, lowering himself to the animal‘s height..
   “Dominique, don’t you touch that dog. It might bite you.”
   Regardless of what he has just said, Dominique touches the dog’s head. He’s about to say something, but Richard gives up before he can even begin. It wasn’t as though he was going to get Dominique away from an obviously-friendly animal. The kid interns at the local zoo during the summers part time, filling up the other half of his working career. It was only natural that he would want to pet the animal.
   “Good boy,” Dominique says, stroking the familiar’s neck.
   “Cool,” Kyle says. He too bends down and runs a hand over the dog’s back.
   “Come on, guys.” Richard sighs, not wanting to believe they were being postponed by a dog. “We gotta get going.”
   “Uncle Mark isn’t going to care if we’re a few minutes late.”
   The boys chuckle at Dominique’s remark. Frustrated, Richard slides his thumbs into his pants pockets, chewing on his over lip. He chants, ‘Don’t get mad, don’t get angry’ in his head over and over.
   “Ok. You can pet him for a few more minutes, then let’s get going.”
   Richard leans back against the station wagon, watching his kids. He feels bad for not letting them have a dog. Being a single father and working two jobs, he can’t afford anymore than he already had. If he could, he would’ve got a family pet a long time ago.
   “Come on,” Richard says, speaking up before things get out of hand. “Let’s go.”
   “Can we…”
   “No,” Richard says, cutting Kyle off in mid-sentence. “You know I make enough to barely afford us.”
   Dominique frowns, while Kyle‘s face scrunches up in hurt. The boys give the dog a few more pats before climbing up into the car.
   “I’m sorry. You know I’d let you keep that dog if I could afford it.”
   “We know,” Dominique says. “Don’t worry about it.”
   Richard takes one last look at the dog before he pulls out of the rest stop.

   “Kyle, are you sick?”
   Richard’s ears perk up when he hears Dominique’s words. He looks into the backseat, concern sparking his conscience like only a father’s could.
   “Kyle? You ok?”
   “I feel like I’m gonna throw up, Dad.”
   Great, just great.
   “Ok. I’m going to get us to this next rest stop. It’s three miles up.”
   “I can’t pull over on the interstate, Kyle.”
   “Just take deep breaths, son.”
   Richard accelerates the slightest bit. He isn’t going to speed up a whole lot, because it wouldn’t be any good if he got pulled over with a sick kid, but a little bit wouldn’t hurt.
   “Just keep taking deep breaths, Kyle.”
   He hears the deep, exasperated breaths from his youngest son. He keeps driving, hoping—just hoping—that Kyle won’t throw up.
   You know you’re going to make it. Just believe that.
   He has no choice but to believe that--unless, of course, he wants puke in the backseat of his car.
   Two minutes later, another green sign shows up.
   “Ok, Kyle. We’re almost there.”
   The next time he turns, he stops right when they hit the beginning of the parking lot. Kyle is out the door and throwing up almost immediately.
   “It’s ok, Kyle.” Richard bends down, rubbing his son’s back.
   Kyle dry retches, occasionally spitting up bile or nothing at all, for another three minutes. When he finally regains his composure, Dominique comes forward, holding a bottle of water.
   “Thanks, Dominique,” Richard says.
   “Yeah, thanks, bro.” Kyle says, sipping the water. “I don’t know what happened.”
   “We’ll wait for a few minutes, buddy.”
   Kyle shrugs before he walks to the car, where he sits near the back wheel.
   “What made him sick, Dad?”
   “I don’t know, Dominique.”
   Richard looks up at the road. He sees what looks like another dog.
   “Dad, it’s a…”
   “I know.”
   When the thing comes forward, Richard can’t believe what he’s seeing. Somehow, the dog has followed them all the way from the last truck stop. This isn’t what surprises Richard though.
   What surprises him was that the dog was somehow walking on its two front legs.
   “Oh my God.”
   The words come from Dominique. The dog’s back legs are gone, severed at the thigh. Sickly bone stick through bloody muscle and flesh, painting a grisly portrait on the concrete below. A few moments of weak stares and the dog collapses beside them.
   “Dominique, don’t,” Richard says, but it’s too late; his oldest son is already at the dog’s side. Kyle is there shortly after.
   He doesn’t keep the thought. Instead, he runs to his children’s side.
   “He’s dying,” Dominique says, stroking the dog’s neck.
   The blood pooling from the dog’s shattered legs is enough to break Richard’s heart. Minutes earlier, this exact dog had wagged its tail, panting, enjoying the attention his sons parted upon it. Now, here it dies on a hot concrete parking lot.
   Kyle cries. Dominique seems near tears, but keeps them at bay.
   “It’s ok, boys.”
   The dog whimpers. Richard sets a hand on the dog’s head.
   “Go get in the truck,” he sighs.
   “But Dad,” Kyle whispers.
   “Don’t argue with me.”
   Both boys rise. When Richard catches Dominique’s eyes, his son has some greater understanding. There’s a look in his eyes that Richard rarely sees in men his own age. There it is though, resting in the depths of his son’s eyes. The eyes are a link to the soul, some say. If that is true, he was seeing deep down into his son, into the depths of a soul not even fully matured.
   When both boys were in the truck, Richard sets his hands on the dog’s neck and head.
   “It’s ok,” he whispers. “I’m going to help you.”
   The dog whimpers. The warm tongue slides across the top of his hand. Compassion fills his heart. Here, a dog is dying before his eyes, yet has the strength to offer thanks for Richard’s mercy.
   With one simple motion, the dog is gone.
   Its neck is broken.
   Richard stands and walks back to the car. Although there isn’t blood on his hands, he feels like there is. It’s a dirty thing, putting an animal out of its mercy. It’s like subjecting cruel torture to something that can’t even defend itself.
   “Dad,” Dominique asks. “Is he…”
   “Yes, boys. He’s gone.”
   “Are we just gonna leave him there?” Kyle asks. Tears glisten the boy’s eyes.
   “Yes.” Richard takes a deep breath. He can’t help but ball his hands into fists “They’ll find him.”
   Richard pulls out of the parking lot, but not without a final look at the dog. In the rearview mirror, he can see it. Though its body may lay in mortal death, its soul is in immortal peace, something Richard only begins to comprehend as he drives away from the scene.
   He can’t help but shed a tear for the dog, the creature that died on Taylor Road. He can’t help but realize that his boys have just become men, while he himself has been reduced to a boy. There’s a shift of roles; while the boys are busying themselves with wiping away tears for fear that it will make them look less like the men they have obviously become, Richard lets his fall freely.
   “Are you crying, Dad?” Dominique asks.
   “Yes, son. Men cry sometimes too.”
   “Even for dogs, Dad?” Kyle asks.
“Yes, Kyle,” Richard says. “Even for dogs.”

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