By: August Kreutz
Bicycle tires cut lines through the loose ground beneath me. The gravel is made of mostly broken oyster shells and they crunch and crackle as I rollover. I turn my head to look back and see my younger brother, Thomas, right on my tail. He insisted that we check out this road and see if there is a good spot to launch the boat. We are on the outer banks Island of Ocracoke, North Carolina. It is a thin island, only about a mile wide where we are, but it runs for miles north to south. The Atlantic Ocean is on the east side and the protected Pamlico Sound to the west. We meet the end of the road and see a foot-path that cuts through the tall grasses and wiry brush and through to the water. The water on this side is real shallow and warm -- it is clear but turns blue-green as it deepens.
Thomas is excited to get his little Boston Whaler motorboat in the water and motor all around the island. He prefers boats to most things. We take off our sandals and walk through the sandy mud to the shallow water. Clear fish dart around our feet and hermit crabs amble away from the commotion. Thomas digs the spot, “We should launch it here in the morning.” I say OK as I try to snatch up a little fish -- too slow.
It is getting dark and I suggest that we head back to the campsite and get some dinner. He agrees and we make our way. Walking back through the tall grass I notice the decaying body of an animal. It is mostly just the skeleton -- completely intact with some skin and fur here and there. I thought it was a small dog at first, but quickly realize it is a big possum. This possum was nestled so comfortably in the grasses -- like it just laid down for a nap and never woke up. I wonder if it knew it was going to die and picked this pretty spot. It looked so peaceful.
My family is here on the island camping for a weekend and eating seafood and generally soaking up sunshine for a few days. We live on the mainland -- a two-hour ferry ride and then a two-hour drive from here on the island. On this trip we have two cars -- I’m driving my dad's old Jeep and towing the twelve-foot Boston Whaler behind it. We have the family dogs too, naturally. Luther is the dog that I grew up with. He is a Weimaraner and at this point about 13 years old. He was a rescue so we never knew exactly, but he has been slowing down for a while. And the other is a mini dachshund named Tiny -- ‘cause she’s tiny.
Sunday rolls around we are all looking forward to getting some clean clothes on our bodies as well as a proper shower. I make instant coffee on the gas stove and my stomach is telling me things loudly. There is a Mexican food truck just down the road so I grab a burrito. The best breakfast burrito I have ever had: eggs, hash browns, avocado, cilantro, salsa, and spilling with fresh crab meat. Exactly what the doctor ordered.
Pretty soon we notice Luther is not being very active. He is just sitting in the shade, not drinking or eating. Only breathing. I watch his rib cage expand and contract and wonder what he needs. It isn’t even noon and it’s already 90 degrees. He probably needs to cool off I think. We end up putting him in my Mom’s car with the AC on to see if he’ll cool down.
Thomas and I go about our day, we have to catch a ferry around ten at night to get back to the mainland so we figure we should make the most of the day while we are here. I drop in a fishing line off a pier but have no luck.
We boat around the shallows and poke at stingrays with a paddle. One gave us a good scare -- we were wading through the water barefoot towing the boat on a line because it got too shallow, and I almost stepped on the thing. It was easily three feet in diameter. The biggest I’ve ever seen. We scared him about as much as he scared us. It darted and Thomas and I were back in the boat before we even realized what happened.
We reconvene with the family in the late afternoon and find that Luther has only gotten worse. His gums are all white and we can’t get him to even drink. My Dad takes him out of the car and sets him on the grass. I sit down next to him and we all cry. My Mom stands off in the distance and Thomas stands by the car all teary-eyed. Saying goodbye hurts, but considering I am only home for about two weeks a year it is nice to be there with him as he goes. I can feel his heart stop with my hand. He was a good boy. My Dad makes a call and we find that there is no vet on the island that can cremate his body for us.
Like is said it is real hot and we still have some time to kill before the ferry takes off, so we get some trash bags and pack Luther in a bag in the back of the Boston Whaler on ice like seafood. We cover him up with life jackets so as not to alarm anybody who happens to look into the boat. The plan is to get him home and bury him in the yard by a big tree. Bittersweet.
Nighttime rolls around and we board the ferry. It is huge and we take off into the growing darkness. Buoys blink red and direct the captain through the shallow water. After about an hour the ferry turns left and heads south -- the buoys are gone -- we just plow into the salty darkness. Stars litter the sky and I try to find the few constellations I know.
Soon enough a woman’s voice crackles over the sound system and warns that we are approaching the ferry landing and everyone should head back to their cars. Before I know it we are off the ferry and driving through the flat winding roads of the banks. Out here near the coast, the road cuts through marshes and swamplands. All the ground is below and looks like it could consume the pavement at any time.
It is approaching one in the morning. The fabric doors of the jeep are unzipped and flapping. The dim yellow headlights illuminate the flat country highway ahead and static Rollings Stones buzz softly on the radio. I think to myself how good it will feel to take a shower and wash all this salt off my body.
My parents are in my mom’s Subaru and making better time than us. The Jeep isn’t exactly a speed demon especially with a boat on the back. We were about an hour out still and I figure they are probably home already or close to it. Thomas is sitting in the passenger seat and mostly quiet. I know is anxious to get home and get Luther in the ground. He wants to dig a hole tonight but my Dad insists we do it first thing in the morning. I don’t like the idea of Luther sitting dead in the boat longer than necessary but I am dog-tired.
I pull off the road at a gas station to relieve myself, then we hit the road again. All I can think about is hot food and a shower. I start to get a little heavy with my foot to try to make up some time.
The darkness of these rural Carolina roads is liquid and infinite. Now there is a wall of pine trees on either side of the road -- consistent in height and density -- all about fifty feet tall. The ground melts away behind us as we push 60 mph. The Jeep is shuddering. Silhouettes of pine trees chase my periphery as wind shouts in my ears and floods my nostrils.
All of a sudden a big possum materializes right in the path of my front driver side wheel. I quickly dip the steering wheel to the right and tap the brake pedal -- a reaction and a mistake.
Time slows down and my heart rate doubles. I know something terrible has happened and it is about to get much worse. The Boston Whaler throws the rear wheels of the Jeep out to the left like the hips of Uma Thurman. I compensate with the steering wheel and try to get the little car straight again.
Then we are being thrown to the right -- now all four tires are screaming and screeching across the pavement. I can see my brother clutching the roll bar and he yelling “NOOO”.
I have never been so scared in my life. As I wrestle with the steering wheel and try to keep the Jeep upright I have this horrible feeling that I just killed myself and my little brother over a goddamn possum. We dance to left, to the right, and back to the left. We burn into the opposite lane and come to shuddering halt in the grass. Silence. Then….CRASH. The boat had swung around and flipped upside down in the middle of the road. I can see the back end of the white and blue boat through the passenger window. Ice and Luther's body are thrown across the pavement.
The Jeep is still upright and I am gripping the steering wheel as hard as I can. The smoke of burning rubber consumes my eyes and nose. I throw on the hazards and kill the engine. There is nobody around. The only lights are the Jeeps running lights and the only sound is the hazards clicking on and off.
Thomas frantically yells at me, “It was just possum!”. I have never seen him so shook. “I know!” I angrily yell back at him. We jump out of the car. I look back down the road and see the possum look at me with glowing eyes and then dissolve into the darkness. I should have run the hairy bastard down.
Adrenaline is high as we collect ourselves and assess the damage. Soon the sound of a truck motor vibrates from down the road and I can see headlights peering around the bend. An old Ford truck rolls up and stops on the opposite side of the road. A weathered-looking bearded man steps out.
He is wearing old overalls and dirty shrimp boots. He stands there with his hands in front pockets looks up and down at the mess. “Look like yuh boys shore lucked out” His voice is like wet gravel. “Yuh could have rolled that Jeep”.
“Yes sir” I responded. “Can you help us get this boat upright?” He nods and we flipped the boat right side up and moved it out of the road. It is fortunately still strapped to the trailer.
Thomas and I pick up Luther’s cold stiff body and put him back in the boat on what little ice we could recover from the road. I explain to the man that it is our pet dog who passed today.
The trailer looks OK but the ball on the hitch of the Jeep had somehow sheared off and has disappeared. I want to tell my parents what has just happened. I look at my phone and see that I have no service. Thomas checks his phone and says the same. The man says he has no phone but we are near a town where he lives. He says if we follow him with the Jeep he can give us a ball hitch so we can reconnect the boat and be on our way.
I am weary of this man, but also grateful for his help so I agree and Thomas and I get back on the road and follow. After about two miles we take a right and head south on a county road. Soon enough we arrive at town which consists of an auto shop, a dollar store, and some houses right off the road that look like they are around a century old. The man pulls into the lot of the auto shop so I follow. The taillights on his truck flash as he shifts the transmission into park.
The craziness of this whole situation suddenly slaps me in the face as I feel sweat build on the back of my neck. Even in the thick of the night the summer heat and humidity are relentless. It is easy to trust when you are in need.
I see the man's left shrimp boot plant on the ground as he steps out of the truck. Without looking back at us he walks around behind the shop and I see yellow light splash onto the tall grass beside the shop. Old boats and trucks litter his property. The Jeep is still running and I am about ready to burn out of here full gas. All of a sudden a flood-light on the front of the building turns on and blinds me for a second. Then there the man is again holding a ball hitch in one hand a medium-sized crescent wrench in the other. I step out of the Jeep.
He gets to work on the ball hitch, and I stand near with an eye on that hand holding the wrench. Then he pauses. He is on one knee and looking up at me. I can see his face -- now well illuminated. His hair is wiry and pushed back down his leathered neck. Crow feet and creases connect his features and a gray and black beard hide his mouth and jaw. His eyes are deep green and sparkle in the floodlight.
“Yuh know….I been here uh long time….longer ‘n most men been anywhere. My family been here since Injuns still been ‘round here.”
“You ain’t from around here are yuh?
“No sir” I say. “Were from the midwest -- Missouri” He nods and looks back at the hitch.
Still looking down he says, “Yer dog is jus fine…...yuh know….death ain’t the end. There’s many worlds….somes evil….and somes seems like magic…... there’s more of yuh than yuh can figure….and jus as many as that there dog uh yers….I know a lot about dyin’....more ‘n most men do.” He says all this real low and soft while still working on the hitch.
I just nod -- not quite sure what to say. I am growing increasingly timid of this man. I then ask him what I owe him for the ball hitch. He says, “it’s paid for. You boys best be on yer way ‘fore yer family starts worrin.”
I thank him but don’t want to shake his hand -- I jump back into the idling Jeep and hustle us back to the boat and trailer -- anxious to get out of this place. We re-attach the boat and burn down the road. All the while driving home I can’t help but think about what the old man was saying to me. What the hell was he talking about? It sounded like an obscure quantum physics theory. I figure it is be best to not think about it too much, but the words “its paid for” linger in my mind.
I check my phone again and see that it is dead from the day and trying to find signal. I decide I will just tell my parents all about it when we got home. They will likely still be up until we get home anyway.
The speed limit is 20 mph through town were my family lives. It is real quiet as we roll through. Thomas is not talking and still wide-eyed. I say, “Learn from that -- if you are towing with a Jeep, run the possum over.” He nods in agreement. I tell him that we will get Luther in the ground in the morning after some rest. He’s not going anywhere anyway.
We pull into the driveway and Thomas is out of the Jeep and heading inside before I even bring us to a complete stop. I kill the engine and sit there in silence for a moment. The air feels fresh here among the pine trees. I think about younger days with my dog Luther. I liked to watch him run and chase. He was the fastest dog I’ve ever known. Not as fast as a greyhound, but stronger. I remember the day he came home and then I think about sitting with him on the island there in the prickly sandy grasses as he convulsed and faded away silently. His eyes were wide and he looked scared. A whole life full of experiences for him, and I feel I still don’t know myself sometimes. This thought made me smile and shed a tear.
And then lightning flashes. Not the kind that is close and sharp. But the kind that is high up -- you can’t locate it exactly and it fills the sky entirely. It seemed weird to me -- I could hear no thunder and the light flashed kind of green. It startled me and brought me back to the present.
I get out of the Jeep and walk around the boat to make sure he was still on ice. Then I freeze and the hairs on my neck stand up. The ice was there, but Luther was not. I get frantic and feel a sense of panic that I have never felt in my life before. I step back a few feet and scan the darkness.
The man. That creepy old man with the weird message about death. He took my dog. I knew it for sure -- but how? I was with him the whole time I wasn’t at the boat. Maybe he had a partner….? Anger and fear poured hot through my body like bathwater.
I step toward the boat to confirm his body was missing. Sure enough -- but something else. In place of his body was an object. I grab my flashlight out of the Jeep and shine on it. It’s a circle made from little sticks -- whitened like bone. I figure they are driftwood. They are bound together with what looks like sinew, and a strand runs through the center of the circle dividing it into two halves. I leave the object where it lies.
At this point I think I’m delirious. I go inside and kick off my shoes. My parents must be asleep because their door is shut and the light is off. I go upstairs to tell Thomas what I just saw. His light is still on and the door is open but he is stomach-down asleep on top of his bed. I turn off his light and shut the door. No point in freaking him out right now.
I strip down and rinse off in a hot shower. I don’t know what to think about the object in the boat or what possibly happened to Luther’s body, but my mind is running laps. I don’t know if I’ll even sleep tonight. It all seems too unreal and weird.
Why did my entire experience with my pet dog conclude with this nightmare situation? The uncertainty -- I felt mad and frustrated, which then made me feel even more tired. Clean and dry I flop onto my bed and it feels so good -- the grip of sleep takes me in.
I sleep like a dead person and wake up to sunlight beaming through the window. The sun isn’t very high so I figure it is still early.
As I get dressed I hear a scratch on the door -- like a dog pawing at it. I freeze, then walk over to the door. I turn the knob and open it real slow. Luther comes trotting through the door plain as day. Tail wagging -- sniffing my legs -- then he jumps up onto my bed in that old-dog manner and makes himself comfortable. Then he just sits there looking at me. I feel like I am about to faint so I move. I run downstairs and through the living room. “Good morning!” my Mom cheers as I run by -- I ignore her and bust out the front door.
I run out to the Jeep and trailer. The boat is untouched. There is no missing paint or scrapes from the highway. There are no ice bags in the back. The ball hitch is even original. I feel that sense of panic returning -- then I calm. It must have been a crazy dream. It had to be. Holy shit -- what a maddening dream. But then something catches my eye. The artifact or object or whatever the hell it is, is sitting in the boat. The stick circle divided in two. I stand there unable to move. I feel as though I am watching myself from twenty feet up in the air and I can feel the world revolving. Luther runs up and sniffs my knee -- wagging.