I come down the road, same way as always. Forty miles south of town the road begins its slow decline and my van noses down, past the minimart, past the gas station, past the Lendon’s house with the plastic deer and the cracked lawn chairs and the concrete bird bath, then I turn left, right, left again and that’s my driveway. The first thing greeting me is the dying pine tree on the side of the house. It’s hunched over itself, like it’s retching up its own needles on the ground below it. Okay. So maybe it’s a sign.
I put the van in park, listen to the engine cough out, and go to the shed for my axe. This is something I’ve got to start before I lose my strength. And even now, I can feel the pressure under my rib cage as I walk, pulling over the top of my skin like a rubber band. What they don’t tell you is how fast it grows. One morning, awake and doing fine, and the next I’m holding my side trying to breathe as I go back up the stairs for my shoes. My doctor tapped his palm with a scalpel, said it’s pushing on my lungs. Said that’s what’s going to make it tricky—tricky, like we’re playing a board game where he’s got to pull it out without touching the sides. Go home and think about it, he said.
I take my axe out of the shed and go on out to the tree. One long look and I throw the blade into its trunk. Sap bleeds down its side and sticks to the blade. I pull the blade out for another whack, watching as the sap strings itself between the blade and bark and then snaps. I send the blade in again and feel the crack up my arms and down into my spine. Bark pops off and clumps to the needles on the ground. After the fourth chop, I have to hold out my hand and lean on the tree. I feel my heart beating in it, like it’s sucking my blood from me, too. The blade twitters in the sun.
I look up and my son’s walking to me like he’s done something he doesn’t want to tell me. He’s eight and too thin. I can put my whole hand around his arm and wrap my thumb on top of my fingers when I do it. If I could be his age again, I’d eat until I popped.
“What are you doing, Dad?” he asks me. He’s got the dog’s leash in his hands but the dog’s nowhere around. At the end of the leash is the dog’s collar, dangling.
“The tree is dead,” I say. “So I’m chopping it up for firewood.”
He kicks some of the chunks of sticky bark and watches them skitter across the bed of needles.
“Sparky is gone,” he says. “He got away from me.”
How many times, I think. How many times did I tell him he isn’t strong enough to walk that dog by himself.
“Well,” I start. I pull my hand off the tree and feel the sap pulling back on my skin. I try on a voice that sounds angry. “Goddammit. Goddammit, Jeffrey. Look at me, son. What is it you expect me to do?”
Jeffrey swings the collar so that it loops around his ankles and clatters a racket with those tags. Never once does he look at me in the eyes like I ask him to.
“Could you help me find him?”
I look at Jeffrey, look at the tree, at the open slice staring at me. The slice makes a face, like the tree might be smiling. Like here I am, putting it out of its misery. I could finish it today with the four hours of daylight I got left. I take the axe and swing it back—the grip sticks with the sap on my hands, and the blade whacks hard into the trunk. Chips flash out and Jeffrey throws his hand up over his eyes. That dog is on the dam by now, trotting across like it wasn’t trying to get hit on the road.
“I’m worried,” Jeffrey says. “Please help me find him, Dad?”
“Goddammit,” I say. I lean the axe on the trunk and brush my palms off on my jeans. What good is the dog to us anyway? It’s a useless Golden Retriever—never learned to hunt or guard or round anything up. My son can’t even play fetch with it because it doesn’t understand it’s supposed to bring the ball back.
“I’ll bet you that dog comes back on its own,” I say, but we walk together over to the van anyway. And beneath my ribs, the lump throbs like it’s telling me something—what to do, I guess. It bumps on my bones like speaking in sentences, in a string of short words I can’t quite figure out yet.
Jeffrey sees the rush of gold as we go down the curve and onto the dam. We’re pushing sixty.
“That’s him!” he yells. “He’s over there.”
He points to the shoulder on the other side of the road where the dog looks back once at our van and takes off at a dead gallop. Jeffrey is in the seat behind me with his face flat on the glass. Once I get around the curve, I slow the van and steer over into the other lane.
“Don’t hit him, Dad. He’s right over there.”
“Then lean out and get him,” I say. “You know the routine.”
“He doesn’t have a collar. How am I supposed to grab him?”
Jeffrey pulls open the van door, and I’m doing maybe thirty with the door open and gaining ground on the dog. I could just steer over onto the shoulder—an accident, swift and final—because who’s going to catch the dog when I’m gone? I think about it so hard I feel my hands letting it happen, drifting, drifting, hearing the rumble strips under my tires.
“Dad!” Jeffrey yells. “Sparky’s right next to us! Don’t hit him!”
I straighten the van out and pull off the shoulder back onto the road. Jeffrey is half out, trying to loop his hands around the running dog. I can see his fingers slipping through the dog’s hair in my side mirror. I hit a rock and I see him bounce up and catch himself on the side of the van.
“Put your seatbelt on when you do that,” I tell him. The last thing I need is his mother on me if he falls out. We’re doing maybe fifteen now, with the dog running alongside, but Jeffrey can’t catch a hold on him.
“Hang on, Jeff,” I say, and then I throw the wheel onto a hard left in front of the dog. Through the howl of the tires, the dog lets go of one hell of a yelp.
“Sparky!” Jeffrey screams, and hell if I didn’t just kill that damn dog. I know I’ve got to look out my window and see the damage, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s good for a boy to see that blood. Because who could show him when I’m gone.
“You ran over his paw,” Jeffrey says. I look over and he’s out of the van with his arms around the dog’s neck. The dog’s been whining the whole time, I guess. “See? He can’t walk on it anymore.”
“But we caught him, didn’t we?” I say. “You better put his collar back on before he takes off again.”
I get out and do the right thing and help the boy put the dog in the van. It stretches on the floor by Jeffrey’s feet, crying and licking its foot and snapping at Jeffrey’s hand every time he tries to touch it. When I turn the van back on, the gas light flashes. It’s just one more thing. I figure we’ve got enough to get back home.
“Can we take Sparky to the vet?” Jeffrey asks.
“He’ll be fine,” I tell him. “He’ll just have to get over it. Maybe he’ll even change his mind about running away.”
With two hours of daylight left, the tree groans and hits the ground. What’s left of its needles fall off and pile up beneath it. Inside the trunk is soft. Part of the wood bends backward to connect the top of the tree to the trunk. Jeffrey and the dog sit on the front steps, watching. I walk over to where the tree hangs on and pull the axe up over my head, letting the blade drop straight down, and the tree separates from the trunk. The axe swings back behind me. I feel my inner arm catch and pull itself over the lump with the weight of the axe. I take my other hand and rub a circle on it. It’s an egg under my bones. First a robin, then a crow, now a chicken. The doctor said do it quick or it might get to be an ostrich. Won’t I be dead by then, I asked him. Because how could I carry an ostrich under my shirt without a soul noticing?
The front door creaks open and my wife walks out to stand behind Jeffrey and the dog. She holds her hands on her hips, where I used to put my hands. I used to be able to call up the feel of her skin beneath my hands, but I guess that’s gone now, too.
“So are you trying to kill yourself?” she calls over. “You’re not as young as you think you are.”
“Neither are you,” I say back. “I’m doing fine.”
I take the axe and knock the limbs off the top of the tree. They leave white eyes behind, little and bigger circles watching me work. I chop faster. My shoulders pinch and burn and I feel my hands blistering but I chop on.
“Don’t come crying to me,” my wife says. “I’m not going to listen to you whine that your arms ache.”
I’ve got nearly all the limbs off. The trunk tapers off toward the backyard and I walk the length of it, kicking the branches away from the body. Tomorrow I can set in on quartering it for firewood. Sweat comes down my nose and holds itself there. I feel each breath coming in like knives. I may as well have a belt around my ribs. I lean over and press my weight against my thighs, letting each breath come and go. A flock of geese goes over, low enough so I can pace my breathing with the heavy slips of their wings.
“I knew you’d overdo it,” my wife says. Each wing, so much wind flooding through it. “You think you’re just invincible.”
Without warning, the dog is off the porch, right out from under Jeffrey’s hands, and streaking off through the backyard to the tree line on three legs. Jeffrey pulls himself to his feet before I can stand straight. He doesn’t say the dog’s name—he’s off after it on his thin legs, over the tree, across the yard, and then they’re both gone into the tree line. Neither of them makes a sound.
“Well?” I say, holding my side. The lump twists and pushes against my fingers like it’s stretching to break free of me.
“Should we go get him?”
“Let the boy catch his own dog,” I say. “If it still wants to run.”
We watch the tree line for a while and wait for the brush to shake so we know where Jeffrey is. Even along the back row of trees, blight grips the pines so they fire back at us bright orange in the fading light. I figure I can give him until dark to find his own way back.
In the morning, I let Jeffrey sleep in with a pillow tucked into the nook of his knees where the dog should be. My wife sleeps, too. I stand over her in the gray dawn light, fingering the growing ridge on my rib cage. It’s pushed through my chest hair, living above the tree line.
She comes out at nine, as the heat is coming on and the cicadas pick up their chirping in the trees. I’ve got the trunk cut down into eight sections; the first section set up for quartering on the stump. She’s got her hair back such that runners of white go up along her temples.
“He didn’t come back last night,” she says.
“Sure he did. You don’t remember. You took the sleeping pill and I went out and found him.”
The axe is heavier this morning. My hands flinch on the handle when I throw the blade down.
“I mean Sparky,” she says. “Jeffrey won’t stop talking about it. He wants me to take him down to the dam like you did yesterday.”
“It isn’t there.”
The blade comes down and splits the first section in half. My wife winces at the crack the wood makes as it comes apart. I set up one half for quartering. Sweat collects in the folds of my shirt but I can’t take it off. Not anymore. She watches me go through two sections before she says anything.
“Were you going to go to work today? Or—did you take vacation?”
“Let’s call it vacation,” I say. “It’s too tricky to explain.”
“Did you quit?” she says. Her voice goes higher. “No, you didn’t quit, did you? We can’t afford that.”
And maybe I did quit. I don’t know that yet. I’m focused on the six sections of tree left to quarter. After I finish that, there’s the dog to find. Somewhere up the highway, I have an office with a phone that’s ringing and an email account that’s filling and a doctor who wants to cut into my skin and pull that egg out from under my ribs, but she doesn’t know that, either. The geese are moving early this year. And low, too—I feel their wings pushing a breeze on my back and I feel like I could leave this shirt on and chop forever. Young. That’s how I feel.
“Oh God,” she says. “Oh, God you did quit! Tell me!”
“The dog’s after a coyote,” I say. “I saw them on the ridge when I went out to get him last night.”
My wife holds her mouth in an O. Her fillings glint and her tongue moves up and down. Then she closes her mouth and shakes her head as if spider webs have blown into her hair.
“You’re unbelievable,” she says. “That you would do this to us. You know I’m not working right now. Why? Why would you quit? What good did that do us?”
Inside the wood is a map of dark lakes and tiny highways I can’t read. Those were the veins carrying water to the branches. Those were the rings that expanded in the sunshine. There is a knot, a burl. I run my finger up the row of rings on the stump—forty-eight. The tree is one year older than I am. But I took that from it. This was my decision.
It’s possible that my wife won’t be able to move the quarters of firewood from the shed to the house. I carry four at a time to the shed, each load a whole section. Some of them stick to my shirt. I have flecks of bark and sap tangled in the hairs on my arm. I think of her, how if the snow gets deep this winter she’ll be tromping out to the shed in her slippers. Will her ankles turn red from the cold? Maybe this tree isn’t big enough. She and Jeffrey, in February, the heat turned up and her twisting her forehead for fear of the next electric bill. With this wood, they could be self-sufficient. I could leave them that.
I stack the final load of wood against the shed wall and go in to find my measuring tape. The only light coming in is through the window, and dust filters down over the workbench. There’s the sword Jeffrey tried to whittle from a branch. There are the shingles I cut, all of them a half inch off in various places. Jeffrey made his mother a spice rack, but she told him it’s better off as shelving in the shed. I take the measuring tape from the shelf and lift my shirt, pulling up the side beneath my heart.
The edges are defined, smooth, as if they ascend from my rib cage a full-formed submarine. I take my thumb and forefinger and pinch the base on each side. I try to wiggle the mass, to move it, but it holds itself entangled somewhere in my muscle. Pressing my two fingers on its top, I pull in deep breaths and feel my skin move over it. It could be plastic. Like one of those Easter eggs my wife hides in the daffodils for Jeffrey. I stretch the measuring tape across it, letting the lip between the mass and my rib hold the metal clip. One and a half inches across, three inches heading upward to my heart. I make a note on a clipboard I keep in a drawer—the last measurement calculated six inches from the region where I think my heart lives. I measure this distance again, to be sure. Two weeks from the last measurement puts me at five inches.
I hold the mass in my palm and look out the window of the shed into the backyard, watching the wind tangle itself through the tree line where the dog disappeared. A red tail hawk hunches on one of the foremost trees. He is just a white chest against the dried up pines and the fading greens of the pin oaks. I watch him watching the earth, the grasses. Watching for a single shift on a single blade of grass, that fraction of a chance before he dives.
Around about dusk, my wife clatters dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. She leaves the water running—a habit she’ll have to learn to break when I’m gone and the money runs out. I sit at the kitchen table, tracing the lines of the wood as they undulate across the planks. How big was this tree? How tall? Where did it come from? I’ve already tried to help her, but she pushed me away with her elbows, never once looking away from the trees where Jeffrey is searching for the dog. The walls are thin enough that I hear him calling the dog’s name over and over into the tree line.
“Your boss called,” she says. “He says you didn’t show up. He says you weren’t supposed to have the day off. And Jeffrey didn’t go to school today, either. Don’t think I didn’t notice that. You were supposed to take him.”
Sometimes in the nights now, with her steady breathing and her ridged back curled against me and the yipping of the coyotes through our open window, I can feel it moving. Each cell hijacked, transformed. That’s when it grows the fastest—in the nights. My skin stretching against the building mass of mutated cells. I feel them seeping into my blood, moving up to my heart and out to my fingertips, my lungs, my brain. I put my fingers around it and squeeze it in to keep it from growing out, but it moves down, down, down.
“You better have a plan,” she says. “That’s all I have to say.”
I do have a plan. My plan is to not tell her anything, to make it easy on her, almost like a surprise when she finds me dead under the tree where the hawk sits. No surgery, no chemicals. No husband with his hair falling out and missing toenails and thrown up soups.
From the tree line, Jeffrey squeals the dog’s name and my wife sucks in all her breath at once. She drops a pan into the running water and holds her hand over her heart.
“What is it?” I say.
She points out with her other hand into the near-dark where our son is.
“He’s got the collar,” she says. “Please. Please go get him.”
I raise myself on my two hands and let the blood catch up to my head. He calls the dog’s name again and again. My wife moves her hand over her mouth and Jeffrey comes through the back door. He holds the collar up before us, the tags glittering in the yellow light.
“Did you catch him and lose him?” I ask.
“I found him,” he says. “But he won’t get up.”
“He’s hurt, Dad,” Jeffrey says. “Somebody bit him.”
My wife looks at me and nods her head. I walk over to Jeffrey and we go out together into the collection of crickets and the thickening dark.
We break into the tree line as the sun sinks. Through the trees back over to the house, a red ribbon of clouds hangs on the horizon where the sun used to sit. I follow Jeffrey through the clots of tall grasses and the fallen walnut branches and think of ticks. I stop every few hundred feet and check under my pants legs for their flat bodies on my ankles. Jeffrey plows on.
I wish to god I would’ve brought a flashlight. The sun goes out completely and I follow Jeffrey through the trees almost by touch alone. Then the coyotes start up. Jeffrey stops for the first time since the house, and we stand in the dark listening to their yips and howls.
“It was them,” he says. “It’s their fault.” Then he walks on. “We’re almost there,” he says.
Ten minutes later, we climb up the ridge with the coyotes singing behind us.
“They want him,” Jeffrey says. “Can you protect him, Dad?”
The moon is just an arch of white, but there’s enough light for me to see the body in the clearing, Jeffrey leaned over with his hands in the dog’s hair. I try to push my eyes through the dark to see if his chest is moving. His neck is split, but the dog’s tail gives a tick as I stand behind Jeffrey. I hold my body still, letting all my blood work its way through my lungs.
“Why are you holding your hand over your heart, Dad? Are you tired?”
I shake my head and crouch down to stare at the dog’s face, at his glassed eyes, and I think how I’ve got to say something about the dog for Jeffrey’s sake.
“I’m fine,” I tell him. “Let’s worry about Sparky. Put your hand on his chest and tell me if you can feel his heart beating.”
Jeffrey lays his palm flat on the dog’s side. I remember hearing somewhere how gums turn white from blood loss, so I reach for the dog’s mouth to check his tongue. The dog flinches and pulls his lip up over his top row of teeth and lets go of a low growl.
“He’s moving,” Jeffrey says. “Can we take him to the vet?”
“The vet’s not going to tell us anything we don’t know,” I say. The coyotes yip up the ridge, their calls moving closer. I look around into the trees for their eyes, but nothing moves. “We’re going to have to get out of here,” I tell him.
Jeffrey watches me as I unbutton my shirt. I remember hearing from a neighbor who lost a dog to coyotes how they send out one in the pack to lure the dogs into the tree line and then attack them. I’m tempted to tell Jeffrey the dog got what was coming to him. Then I take off my undershirt and wrap it around the dog’s neck. It soaks through red.
“What’s that?” Jeffrey says. The dog growls as I slide my shirt underneath his body, but I don’t think he’s got the energy to fight me. Some of his ribs move under his skin in a way that makes me think they’re broken. I tie him up in my sleeves and stand to fix my breathing.
“That,” Jeffrey says. He runs his index finger over the top of the bump, moving north to my heart. Then he runs it back down, stopping in the middle. He pokes his finger hard into the middle of it. The coyotes call to each other in a loop around us, but they’re no closer than before.
“We’ve got to worry about Sparky right now,” I say.
“It feels like an egg.”
“It’s always been there,” I tell him. “You’ve just never noticed it before.”
I pick up the dog by the sleeves of my shirt and hoist him up into my arms like I might do if it were Jeffrey instead. The dog cries and I find myself wincing at the sound. Then I’m sorry for letting him run out in the dark, just like that, because maybe he didn’t know better.
“You lead the way,” I tell Jeffrey. “I’m following you.”
He can see the lump through my over-shirt. His eyebrows knit up like his mother’s as he watches it twitch.
“Every minute we wait is another minute Sparky might not make it. Come on, Jeff. Let’s move it,” I say to him.
He shakes his head as if to knock the lump out of his mind and turns to trod down the ridge. We move through the walnuts and over the dried up grasses and the rings of dead needles beneath the pines with the voices of the coyotes on our backs, just a hundred feet behind us every step.
The dog is heavier and his hips press against my lungs but Jeffrey moves fast through the woods. We step through the tree line into our backyard and the dog begins to thump his tail on my leg. Under the slice of moon, the little windows of yellow light and the stack of firewood logged up against the house and there’s my toolshed and my van and the shingles that don’t match up on the roof but it’s mine. All of it, even the boy in the yard and the dog in my arms and the woman inside with her arms crossed mad as hell at how late it is. And I don’t know.
Maybe none of it matters after all. At least for the moment, I think I’d like to believe that it does.