Coyotes Howl in Fallbrook

Saving Buster

By Dan McClenaghan
The in-laws — Phil and Ellie — loved God and Jesus, so when airfares went down they made reservations for a visit to the Holy Land. I was tasked with watering their lawn; Phil didn’t trust his automatic sprinkler system. And we got temporary custody of Buster, Ellie’s nasty, nippy little Chihuahua, for the duration of their two-week vacation.

I’d rather they’d dropped off a venomous snake.

Buster bit me in the first hour of his stay, though his lack of opposing dentition — he was fourteen years old and bereft of two thirds of his teeth — rendered his attack more a slick, gummy irritation than a danger. Then he rooted several little nut logs out of our cat’s litter box, chewed them up with gusto, and, in very short order, threw them and a can of chunky beef Dog Chow up on our new carpet, a prelude to his pooping on the kitchen floor.

Bustling in for a beer, I stepped in it, slipped and fell, and jumped up with a big brown smear on the back of my t-shirt and murder in my heart. I pulled a long-bladed knife from the cutlery drawer and cornered the little son-of-a-B, but my wife, Merilee, jumped like a boxing referee between us, and she danced me against the wall and said, “Why don’t you go over and water Dad’s lawn?” as that Goddamned little hellhound yapped maniacally at the malice I’d directed his way.

I took her advice.

Phil keeps a bunch of good Mexican beer in a refrigerator in the garage. I enjoyed one as the sprinklers hissed a fine spray over the front lawn, and I enjoyed another as they misted up the rose bushes. When I knelt down to correct the trajectory of a Rain Bird on the back lawn, my cell phone twittered. I unclipped it from my belt, and Merilee’s voice — bouncing down off a satellite — screamed at me about Buster and the danger he was in.

She was panicked, spewing shrill and fractured sentences my way. She kept repeating the word “eagle.” It seems she’d taken the old boy out to the back lawn so he could do his job again — his kitchen floor thing hadn’t depleted him — and an “eagle” had dropped down out of the sky and carried him off.

I thought about my smeared t-shirt, my aborted attempt to cut his little throat, and said, “We don’t have eagles around here; it was probably a red-tailed hawk.”

Merilee was apparently in no mood to talk about varieties of predatory birds. She blistered my ear with boiling profanities, heating up my cell phone to the point that I had to drop it into the sprinkler spray to avoid severe burns on my hand. Merilee’s voice, an electronic sparrow cheep at this distance — crackling and snapping as water seeped into the cell phone’s guts — told me to get my sorry ass home and do something about saving Buster.

As I drove back into the neighborhood, I spied him on top of a streetlight.

The hawk was feasting, tearing off chunks of flesh. Buster’s ribs pointed at the sky like bloody fingers.

I set my forehead down onto the steering wheel and said a prayer — not for Buster, but for Merilee, who would have to answer to her mother upon the parental return from the Holy Land.

After my “amen,” as I pressed the accelerator to move toward home, something fell from the light that arced out over the street. Something round and knobby, pointy eared.

I braked. It hit on the hood, bounced with a bass drum thump and landed again, on the ragged cut at the neck that had been severed at the uppermost vertebrae.

I stopped the car, and Buster faced me with a death grin, lips peeled back from a sporadic spacing of yellow teeth, viscous red fluid following gravity’s pull, leaking out of the head and onto my hood.

I cursed. I climbed out of the car, pinched his triangular ear and flung the head onto the lawn to the right of the car, splattering my shirt with Chihuahua blood, and then I climbed back behind the wheel to drive home, to break the news to Merilee, who was not, as they say, a happy camper. She, in fact, struck me, despite my protestations that the dog had gotten eaten on her watch. Indeed, so incensed was my lovely wife that I had to leave the house, on the run, to avoid a serious pummeling, an egress that took me into the arms of the law, in the persons of two uniformed police officers walking up my driveway. I’d been ratted out by some nosy neighborhood association snoop for, essentially, what I considered littering. But other opinions on that prevailed.

The cops peppered the phrase “Satanic activities” around, and wanted to know about the things I did with household pets. I wore handcuffs for the first time in my life. I took the long ride to jail and answered an endless string of questions about my relationship with the occult, with devil worship. I denied it all. They took my shirt that was sprinkled with Buster’s blood, and put me into a cell with a cot, where I awaited bail that didn’t come.

At the trial, Merilee was silent on the subject of the “eagle,” covering her ass with Mom big time. Ellie, on the witness stand, looked sanctimonious and deeply aggrieved by the loss of her beloved dog. She said she’d always known I was no good, that she’d always suspected I was in league with the Devil. And the jury didn’t believe me.

Now that I’m in prison, I’m finding that the hardened convicts here don’t take kindly to killers of little dogs.

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Dan McClenaghan is an award-winning fiction writer. His short stories have been published by Pearl, Wormwood Review, The Bridge, New York Quarterly, Tidepools and, and he has been a featured author at Fallbrook’s Writers Read.

Hawk image by Chris Willis via a Creative Commons license.