Lucky told me the seconds before you die count the most. Which is why I howled when they come for his body at sunrise, two fat men in a pickup, both smelling sharp and sour from the armpits. There was other smells too: grease, booze, shit. One in coveralls puffed cigar smoke and talked slow and nice, but he didn’t fool me. I knew what he wanted.
Lucky was dead already, his body stiff and bloated by an overturned garbage can. We’d been on a midnight raid and I’d said, don’t eat it. But he didn’t listen, and the poison made him fall over and twitch. He let out a puff of frosty air, and went still.
I licked his muzzle.
I lay down beside him and whimpered.
When the men came, I growled and bared my teeth. My hackles was fierce, even when one of them beat on a metal can and drove me back. It was a cursed noise, and I snapped wildly at the air until a length of pipe come down on my head, and I lay on my side panting, a bloody froth on my tongue. But when they picked up Lucky’s body, I flew at them.
The world went black, and I waked in a cage.
I tried to bark, but my jaw crunched instead of moving the way it’s supposed to, and I pissed the cage, which smelled not of fear but death. I closed my eyes and tried to think about good things from the past, like me and Lucky humping house dogs, and rolling in fish by the river. There was fights, too: yellow teeth flashing and them deep growls that meant somebody weren’t walking away. I don’t like to brag, but me and Lucky always walked away.
And I remembered the old woman who brung us meatballs—in a thick red sauce that tasted like pork and soup bones. With them fleshy arms she’d set the bowls down and watch us eat.
She’d say, Good boys.
Nonni cooks for you.
Nonni loves you.
She never asked for nothing in return, which is why I came close to letting her break my rule about nobody touches my head.
The truck bounced, and rattled the door of my cage. The death smell got stronger, and I started to worry about my last seconds, if I was going to waste them. I imagined the old woman saying, you’re my good dog. Now get up and come to me.
I will, I said to myself, not knowing how I was going to do it.
Awful pain, like the bones in my head was broken and held together with nothing but worn out muscles and my rough, scarred hide. I got up and shoved against the door. More pain, spasms of hurt that made me want to curl in a tight ball and close my eyes, but still I pushed, and again; the door burst open.
Outside of the cage, I braced my forepaws on the truck’s sidewall and jumped, for a moment stretched out full-length, all grace and purpose, no longer caring about the pain or the death smell, ready to run and fall and get back up again, through the yards and streets that would take me to her, to show that I am a good dog and I do love her. And only then, after I lower my battered head for her to touch, as a sign of honor, as a show of my love—for her kindness, and for them beautiful meatballs—will I be ready to die, knowing that I did all I could to make my last seconds count.
Shawn Goodman is the award-winning author of the novels, SOMETHING LIKE HOPE, and KINDNESS FOR WEAKNESS. He is also the co-author, with Wes Moore, of THIS WAY HOME. Shawn lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife and daughters, and works as a school psychologist.