Jordan Mitchell landed a backhand punch against Anthony’s brow. The skin split, pouring blood into his eye. Falling back to the ground, Anthony covered the wound and winked up at the bully, who drew back his leg for a kick. Anthony raised both his legs, lashing one out to kick Jordan’s shin. The bully toppled, and Anthony moved his other leg so Jordan’s chin would connect with his knee, clapping Jordan’s teeth over his tongue.
Screaming almost girlishly, Jordan covered his mouth as he rolled onto his side.
Anthony didn’t have time to gloat before Jerry Burke and Emmit Lane drove kicks into the small of his back. He rolled into a ball, trying to keep the boys from kicking his head.
“Stop it! Leave him alone!” The bullies parted for Theresa. “Are you proud of yourselves? You all outweigh him by at least thirty pounds.”
“Hey, look what he did to my tongue,” Jordan slurred.
“You hit him first, and you hit him all the time. Maybe you deserve to have some of it come back on you for once.” She put her hands on her hips. “Well, go on. I won’t leave, so you can either beat me up or get out of here.”
Anthony stood up, watching the bullies walk away. “Thanks. That’s not my usual crowd, but since I got your brother in trouble today, I think he sent substitutes.”
“How did you get him in trouble?”
“He got caught beating me up in the hallway this morning.”
“That idiot! Why can’t he just leave you alone?”
“He can’t because I’m stalking his cute little sister.”
“You’re not stalking me.” Theresa smiled. “Do you really think I’m cute?”
“Oh, I do. I would hang out with you just to hear you talk, but it’s a nicer deal for me because you’re very cute.” Anthony watched her blush and smiled. “It’s a pity I’m going to die soon. I like making you blush.”
Theresa frowned at him. “Stop saying that.”
“Look at my face, okay? They’re getting a little more rough every time they attack. Maybe it might not be your brother who kills me, but one of these days—”
“Stop, please.” Theresa took his hand. “Maybe I could—”
“Protect me? No, nothing can protect me. It’s only a matter of time before someone hits me too hard.”
Anthony lay in bed and listened to his parents shut their bedroom door. He waited for an hour, checking the time on his alarm clock every few minutes until he got up and slid a flashlight out from under his pillow. Flicking it on, he found his shoes to slip into them, and then moved to grab his bag from his desk. He went to the window to open it and slip outside.
Every night he stayed awake listening to the voice in his head while it made plans. Every day, he had pushed Phillip just a little bit further. All he had to do was smile when he got hit. But talking to Phillip’s sister was hardly an offense to kill someone over, and Anthony was ready to push Phillip into a full rage.
The walk to Phillip’s house was made slowly. He moved from shadow to shadow to avoid the streetlights. Being so late at night, no one bothered to leave their porch lights on, making his trip easier.
He heard the dog before he saw it. Phillip’s dog stayed in the backyard inside a red doghouse, and though a sign declared BEWARE OF DOG, Theresa told him the mutt was harmless. It wouldn’t even bark because Phillip had abused it too.
The knowledge made his plan less pleasant, but as the days wore on, the voice convinced him it would be an act of mercy.
Kneeling down beside the fence, Anthony unzipped his bag to remove a can opener and a can of corned beef hash. He started to open the can, smiling when the little gray mutt trotted out to watch him.
The dog smelled the salted meat on the breeze and moved closer, licking its lips.
Anthony knew it would. Corned beef hash was its favorite treat.
Scooping a small amount on his fingers, he slipped them through the fence. “Try it out, buddy. See what you think.”
The dog sniffed twice before it began to lap up the soft meat.
Nodding, Anthony offered another scoop. “Yeah, you’re a nice stupid mutt, and I’m really sorry I’m about to kill you.”
Glancing around, Anthony wiped his fingers on his jeans before he dug in the bag for a box of sleeping pills. He’d taken the whole box from the medicine cabinet because he wasn’t sure how many he would need to put the dog out.
He slipped out a blister pack and pushed a pill into another scoop of meat. The dog ate it and the pill in one swallow, and Anthony emptied the blister pack before he waited to see what would happen.
He pushed his hand through the fence, and the dog pressed its wiry fur under his fingers, rubbing his hand with its face.
It yawned before settling in the grass, and soon the dog was sound asleep. Anthony looked around again before he moved to the gate to open it. Walking to the dog, he picked it up and carried it to the front yard. He took a plastic bag out for the rest of the meat. Setting the wrapped can in his backpack, he shut the gate next and used his sleeve to wipe down every place he’d touched.
Carrying the dog away was not so easy. Though it was small, the dog still weighed close to eight pounds, and Anthony was very scrawny.
But it was more than just the weight making the trip difficult. The dog was whining in its sleep, and its breathing was labored. He told himself it was a good thing, ultimately. The dog would die in its sleep, and there would be no more abuse.
What’s good for the Anthony is good for the mutt, he thought and groaned at his bad joke.
In the pasture, he searched for the tree he’d marked and found the neon green heart painted on a trunk. Depositing the dog on the ground, he went to slip his hand under an exposed root.
He pulled out his dad’s hacksaw, staring at it and swallowing grimly before he set it aside.
The only other item under the root was a disposable plastic utility knife. Anthony took it and flicked the blade out.
He had hoped the sleeping pills would kill the dog, but more time passed, and it was still panting.
Anthony crept closer, pausing with indecision. Can I really do this? There has to be another way to make him angry.
Yes, but this is guaranteed to work. Once we kill the dog, Phillip will be mad enough to kill you.
“We? I’m doing all the work, but somehow this is our plan?”
I’m the one who keeps you going. Your alternative is a coat hanger, and you know they won’t think about you a week after you’re gone.
“Theresa might.” Anthony looked up at the stars. “She might even miss me for a little while.”
Of course she will. But give her a few months and she’ll have a new boyfriend. Then you’ll just be a sad memory she can’t bring up. You see this through, and she’ll remember you every time she looks at him. Go on, Anthony. Kill the dog.
“If there’s anything out there, I’m sorry. You just haven’t given me any other options down here.” Anthony leaned over and pushed the blade into the side of the dog’s neck.
It yelped in a high pitched keen and staggered to its feet, trying to run away. Anthony leapt to grab the dog, and it turned to snap at him.
He sank the blade under its neck from the other side.
It yelped again, and then made a gagging sound as its windpipe was torn open.
Anthony drug the blade all the way over to the side, only stopping when he saw blood splash out into the grass.
He stumbled back from the dog, watching it spasm while it bled out. His stomach turned, threatening to heave his dinner into his lap.
Don’t get sick yet, buddy, the voice said. The fun has just begun.
Anthony scowled. “This isn’t fun, you freak. This is revenge.”
The voice made a cold, awful laugh. It’s all the same to me.
Phillip stepped onto the patio and opened the bag of dry dog food, whistling while he poured kibble into the dog’s bowl. “Sam!” The dog didn’t come to the patio. Phillip set the bag down and jogged to the dog’s house to check inside. “Sam!”
Phillip looked at his father and frowned. “Sam’s missing.”
“Did you leave the gate open again?”
“No, the gate is shut. I don’t see any dirt piles either, so he didn’t dig his way out.”
“Maybe he’s learned how to climb fences. We’ll find him sometime today when he gets hungry.”
The prediction was false.
Though Phillip had plans to spend his Saturday at the mall with his friends, he sat at home and waited for the dog to come back. It was late in the afternoon when he decided to go looking instead.
He walked to the pasture behind his neighborhood and tried calling a few times with no answer. He was looking out toward the far tree line instead of down, and so he didn’t spot the puddle of blood and entrails until he stepped into it.
Glancing down, Phillip’s cheeks bulged as his stomach pushed his lunch up in one spasm. Vomit piled over the organs, and the repulsive sight made him retch repeatedly.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw how the intestines stretched away from the pile. He took a few staggering steps to follow the intestines before a low moan escaped his lips.
The head was missing, and the blood caked in the fur made it tough to tell if the dog was grey or not. Nevertheless, he recognized Sam’s body, and he sank to his knees, clutching at his stomach when it threatened to heave again.
Alone with his misery, Phillip lost track of time. He heard the sound of someone walking through the tall grass and looked up, his eyes narrowing when he spotted Anthony. “You.”
Anthony held up his hands. “What? I was just—” He stopped and turned to run as soon as Phillip got up.
Anthony stayed ahead of Phillip, but he ran straight for Phillip’s house. He was pounding on the front door when Phillip caught up and shoved the back of his head without stopping. The forward momentum slammed Anthony’s face into the door, breaking his nose.
The door opened, and Phillip’s mother looked from Anthony screaming in agony to the blood sprayed on her front door. “Phillip Michael Carson, have you lost your mind?”
Phillip screamed, “He killed my dog!” Tears streamed down his cheeks, but there was only rage filling his face as he glowered at Anthony. “Son of a bitch, I’ll kill you!”
His mother stepped out the door and put her hand on his chest. “Phillip, look at me!” She slapped him hard enough to redden his cheek. “You explain yourself right now, or I swear to god, I’ll call the police on you myself!”
“He…” Phillip sobbed. “He killed Sam. I found Sam’s body out in the pasture, and he came walking up right then. I’ll bet he wanted to see the look on my face.”
“But I didn’t.” Anthony wiped blood away from his nose using his sleeve. “I have a pellet pistol, and I’ve been going to the pasture to practice with it.”
“No he isn’t,” Theresa said.
Anthony looked over his shoulder at her. “Could you get me a paper towel, please?”
Phillip’s mother gasped to vent her exasperation. “Do you hear that? You just broke Anthony’s nose over nothing.”
“Nothing? Mom, Sam’s in the pasture with his guts hanging three feet outside of his chest. He’s got no head!”
“Phillip, I swear to you, I didn’t do it,” Anthony said. “I’m sorry about your dog, but…” His face crunched in a look of disgust. “Ah, who am I kidding? Why should I feel sorry for your dog? You beat me up almost every day for three and a half years. If it wasn’t you, it was one of your friends. I don’t feel sorry for—”
“Anthony, please.” Phillip’s mother turned to look at him, but she dropped her gaze after she realized what he’d said. Raising her head to look at her son, she frowned. “Is that true?”
“Is it true?”
Phillip looked back into the house. Theresa and his father had both moved to stand behind Anthony. His mother had her back turned to Anthony, and for just an instant, the bastard smiled.
He covered his lower face with tissues, but he still wasn’t able to hide it fast enough.
“You did do it. You son of a—”
His mother’s slap knocked the words out of his mouth and nearly dropped him to his knees. Phillip’s father had to step in then, because she was moving to hit him for real, balling up her fist and drawing back as far as she could.
“Kathy, let me handle this,” he said and turned to glare at his son. “Get inside the house, and sit your ass on the couch. Then you are going to explain to me, the police and his parents why you felt the need to torture him every day.”
Anthony was ready to die for his plan, but watching Phillip squirm under interrogation was an unexpected reward that balanced out the pain of his broken nose and his guilt over mutilating the dog. The paramedics were on their way, and he would miss watching Phillip get hauled away by the police. The only other downside to his plan was that he had a severed dog’s head hidden away and no need for it.
He pushed both thoughts aside and returned his attention to Phillip getting grilled by two cops, neither of which bothered to be the good one.
His nose continued to leak, requiring many tissues to cover his mouth. Which was good, because he couldn’t stop smiling. That’s right, you bastard. I killed your pooch, but it’s only your crimes they care about. The pain you must be suffering is so much nicer than I could have ever imagined, and the best part is, I’m alive to see the look on your face when it all gets ugly for you.
Phillip was still blubbering to the police when the paramedics arrived. Anthony didn’t want to leave, but his parents insisted. He had still heard enough to know many of the bullies would soon stop beating him up because Phillip was giving a full confession.
And nobody was asking about the dog.
Anthony smiled at the paramedic who sat beside his gurney in the ambulance. “You know, I think Monday will be the first day I don’t worry about being beaten up at school.”
“Yeah. The bawling guy in that house was confessing about five of his friends beating me up, so they’re all going away for a while.” And all I had to do was put one abused dog out of its misery.
Anthony noticed Theresa’s absence from school, but he waited two days before he went to her house to find out what was wrong. It was Kathy who opened the door, and her face pulled into a frown when she saw him.
Not bothering with a greeting, he asked, “What happened?”
She waved him inside and led him to the couch before taking both of his hands. “The boys Phillip talked to the police about started attacking him. The story spread that he was a… a snitch, and the attacks got worse.”
Anthony had to work to frown, but he pulled it off well. “They killed him?” he whispered.
“No. He killed himself this last weekend.”
“Oh…ma’am, I’m so sorry.”
Kathy stared at him. “Are you really?”
“I am sorry for you. Phillip was a jerk to me, but he was your son, right?”
“Yeah.” Tears sprang from Kathy’s eyes.
“Ma’am, I’ll go now. I just wanted to see if Theresa was all right. I haven’t seen her at school.”
“Yes, she’ll probably be okay to go back next week.”
“All right. I’ll have my parents come by to get you anything, if you need it.”
“No, but thank you for thinking of us.” Kathy smiled at him. “You’re a very sweet boy.”
Anthony looked away. “I…I’ll see you later, ma’am.”
Are you getting cold feet already? the voice asked. I could always come up with a new plan, but the rest of the bullies aren’t ready to back off yet.
“Some of them have, but I’m not worried about the bullies. I’m just feeling bad for Phillip’s family.”
You don’t feel bad over his suicide though, right?
“No, not at all. I took beatings for years before I started thinking about hanging myself. He didn’t even last two months. The little pussy could dish it out, but he couldn’t handle the same treatment. So fuck him.”
So why are you feeling guilty?
“They had such a rotten kid, and I want to judge him. But now I think about the way I’ve treated my own family, and maybe I haven’t been such a sweet boy to them either.”
Well sure, but you used to be nicer before—
“Hey, Ant boy!”
Anthony sighed. “I really hate that name.” He turned around to watch three bullies run toward him.
Okay, we can—
I’ll handle it, Anthony thought. He smiled and waved at the first bully to arrive. “Hello, Shaun.”
The smile and the calm tone of his voice caused Shaun Finley and his friends to stop short. “Do you think you’re safe now because the cops carted off Phillip and his friends?”
“No, I don’t think I’m safe. In fact, I think I’ve gone crazy.” Anthony shrugged at their baffled expressions and waved for them to come closer.
“Are we doing this, or what?” He laughed when all three took a step back. “Oh, come on. What’s the worst you can get for hitting me? A few months in juvenile hall? Or maybe I’ll show you what I did to Phillip to drive him insane.”
The smile slid away from his lips as he spoke, and both the tone of his voice and his unflinching gaze were filled with malice. “Maybe you should keep an eye open at night if you think about touching me again.”
Threats alone worked for a month, but a new kid moved into the area. The new kid took one look at Anthony, compared the scrawny boy to his reputation, and decided Anthony wasn’t “all that.”
It was the first time any bully had ever stepped up to Anthony alone, though a ring of nine boys surrounded him to block his escape. The church parking lot that served as one of Anthony’s shortcuts was empty, and yelling for help wouldn’t bring any attention until after the damage was done.
The other bullies kept their distance, and when Anthony tried to look anyone in the eye, they nodded to the new kid, or pointed at him. Their silent messages were clear. The bullies wouldn’t fight him, but they would let the new guy try.
Anthony shrugged out of his backpack, turning to look for Shaun. “You’ll watch my bag, right?”
Shaun nodded and looked down. “Yeah, sure.”
Anthony dropped his backpack and rolled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. He had no thoughts of winning, but he was already trying to plan to get in a punch somewhere before he went down.
If he got that one chance, he needed to remind the bullies why he was off limits.
The first punch caught the side of Anthony’s ear, but the bully’s other arm was limp at his side, leaving him completely exposed.
Balling up his fist, Anthony punched the new kid’s throat.
His hands flew over his windpipe, and he tried to double over before Anthony stepped closer. He almost planted his face in the taller boy’s chest before he leapt and butted the top of his head into the bully’s chin. As the bully fell, Anthony raised a knee for a swift kick to his groin.
He stepped back and walked to his bag, opening it to take out his math book before he slipped both straps over his shoulder.
Pivoting in a circle, he searched the ring of bullies, looking for one face that wasn’t wincing or cringing as they averted their gazes from his.
Anthony returned his attention to the new kid and leaned over, waiting until the boy opened his eyes. “You get one warning. If you touch me again, I’ll make you wish you were dead.”
He dropped the book spine-first over the bully’s mouth. Everyone heard the crunch and cringed. No one doubted the damage was bad. They could tell just from the volume and shrill pitch of the new kid’s scream.
But when he stood up to spit out a mouthful of teeth, the ring of boys moaned in a sickened chorus as streams of blood spurted from holes in his lips.
Anthony grabbed his book and watched the bullies drag the new guy away. That’s right guys. Spread the message far and wide. No one touches the crazy kid.
Anne was planting new bulbs in her garden in preparation for Spring. She hadn’t turned the soil over in some time, but she was still surprised when her spade struck a rock.
She dug around it and saw it wasn’t a rock, but rather a bone. A little more digging revealed a snout and an eye socket, and all at once, Anne stopped herself.
She stared at the skull half buried in the soil, thinking back to her dinners at the Carson house. More specifically, she recalled the occasional lamentation of Kathy Carson: We never did find out who killed the dog.
Anne shook her head and started to bury the skull.
After Phillip and his friends went away, Anthony had transformed into a happy, almost normal little boy again. She wanted him to stay that way, and so she ignored the skull and returned to planting bulbs.
What does it matter if he killed the dog? He didn’t kill Phillip, and he wouldn’t have killed the dog if he hadn’t been beaten up for so long.
The secret and the greedy thought would both haunt Anne for the rest of her life.