Updated: Apr 30
by Carter Vair - Aerospace & Natural Science Academy of Toledo, Twelfth Grade
Originally published in Springboard Teen Literary Journal's May 2019 print issue
The whiskers of a hunting dog graced across the fall grass of the early morning, picking up the scents as it slowly lurked through the thick brush of an untamed forest. The dog trotted out of the thick brush, quickening its pace with silent steps. In tow, there was its owner — a grizzly man carrying an assault rifle. His head looked to the ground as he too searched with his eyes, which alternated between the ground and the path before him, paved by the dog’s paw prints in the wet ground.
As he followed his vigilant dog, it lifted its nose up as it produced a low growl. Its head lowered and began to creep up. The sound of moving water soon followed as the man-animal duo approached their destination — a river. The bearded man knelt by a tree, slowly panning from left to right before finding his target. He raised the barrel of his gun and looked down the sights to where he lined up the shot to a buck’s neck. Its antlers were mangled and untamed, curling at the ends as if it were not native to the earth. Without a care in the world, it drank from the veins of the earth, quenching its thirst with the vile and murky water that had been tainted by war.
The man took in a deep breath and moved his finger to the trigger of his rifle and felt his heart slow until it was barely noticeable. His finger aimed to gently squeeze the trigger before a loud deafening high-pitched noise began to claw at his brain. He pulled the trigger as he dropped the gun and the bullet flew by the deer as it turned and pranced away from the river. The noise faded as a masculine cockney voice spoke to him within the confines of his mind. I’d not eat that thing. Look how ghastly its antlers are, John. If you eat that you’ll regret it.
The man muttered, moving to pick up his gun as the dog came up sniffing curiously as it picked up on the distress of its owner. He patted its head gently before picking himself up and walking to the river, setting the stock of his gun into the ground and holding it with one hand as he watched the rapids of the river travel downstream. The murky water of the river moved slowly, gently grazing against the sides of the river as it traveled. The grizzly-bearded man looked down at his own reflection as well as his dog’s.
The voice, however, was persistent in its attempts to control the man, calling out once more from the safety of his head to the silent man. I’d not do that if I were you. I can guarantee whatever the water offers won’t be hydration. It will be a sickness and warping of your very physical form. You will become a shell of your former self, walking around in agony, attacking anything in sight. You’ve seen what it can do, the voice said, trailing off and echoing in his mind. John looked to his dog, which sat patiently beside him, looking to him with what emotion the animal could express. Concern, hunger, thirst. With hesitant grunts, he reached into his backpack which was lighter than he preferred, and brought out half a bottle of water and some questionably-aged jerky. He twisted off the cap, held his hand underneath it to form a bowl, and poured fresh water into it. The dog drank happily from its owner’s hand with a gentle nature, as if understanding the importance of this now expensive and truly rare commodity — untainted water.
Concluding the brief and small breakfast, the two looked upon the river. The man, even at this hour, was tired. The sun by now was shining down through the canopy of trees, letting the warm sun embrace them in the cool fall morning. As it covered his body like a blanket and with the assistance of the dog’s calming presence as it laid across his lap, he nodded off to sleep. For once, he thought he could have a decent slumber.
Only moments later, his eyes shot open as he heard vehicles in the distance with battle-cries following them. The man stood with his dog and followed slowly in pursuit, searching for the source of the noise. A short walk ensued until they came near a bridge built over the tainted stream. They stayed behind the brush and waited. Several trucks came to a stop and burnt men emerged and as they did the voice came to him once more. These men were once like everyone else. Normal. However, once they bathed in the nuclear fire they changed, and not in a good way. Let’s leave it at that, it said with the echoing in his mind trailing off as the man and his dog observed.
Many were covered in tattered and burnt clothing, talking erratically as they began withdrawing miscellaneous objects from the beds of their trucks and machines of war, then dumping them into the river. It was anything from plastic to bones. These were their dumping grounds. The animal-human duo watched silently with the keen nose of the dog sniffing about the air as they saw the objects descend into the river. John could feel his heartbeat become louder, yet slower. Minutes turned to hours as the armed and disfigured shouted about, embracing their environment and new barbaric way of life. Finally, after senseless ramblings in what appeared to be celebration, they retreated into their large diesel machines and departed with the exhaust screaming throughout the wilderness as they returned from where they came.
A feeling of relief washed over John as he looked to his dog, giving it a quick well-deserved scratch behind the ear before getting up and departing. Their steps resulted in the shifting of the dark sand from beneath them, leaving tracks of the duo as they continued on. The grizzly-looking John kept his head down to the ground as his dog began searching with its nose, touching the soft wet sandy soil as they continued to tread through the wilderness. He looked for anything from the prints of mice to a deer. Finally, he found it. Large deer tracks leading from the river to the thick brush of the forest, and rather recent at that, and eagerly, he followed.
The thickness of the forest decreased gradually as they continued onwards, with the thorns no longer sticking in their ankles as the trees became fewer and fewer. Finally, their path opened to a clearing and the dog raised its head. John slowly knelt down on one knee as he scanned the area with his keen eyes. He paused when he saw his prize, a deer. Not like the one from earlier. The sun shone on it as it consumed the tall grass beneath its feet. Its antlers were pristine and perfect and its coat nearly white in appearance. Its large dark eyes were focused on the ground before its ear twitched and picked up his head to scan about as well. Its gaze soon settled on John himself. There they stood, motionless as could be. John broke this stillness as he raised the barrel of his gun and closed one eye and aimed down the sights. He focused on its torso as he felt his heartbeat and the voice reappeared — his angel and demon. Shoot…shoot!
The man’s finger hovered over the trigger, then began to shake as he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The utter peacefulness of the creature before him halted him from taking the shot anyone else would take. The deer, however, didn’t scatter or run away as their gazes continued to meet. John lowered the gun with a sigh and the deer slowly trotted forward. The dog was confused, whimpering in confusion as the creature approached. The deer stopped and the parties looked over each other for one more brief moment. The stag turned around and began to trot away, but not in fear for its life but after finding what it was looking for. The healthy deer disappeared into the thick brush opposite of them, fighting every internal curiosity that beckoned it to look back at its would-be predator.
John stood and looked to his dog who in turn looked to its owner with what little emotion the hound could offer —confusion. The man reached behind the dog’s ear, scratching it to soothe its confused mind as for once in a while he spoke again. “Come on girl, let’s go get some lunch,” he said in a hushed tone and they turned and departed in the direction of their home.