We stood in our soaking trousers in a tight circle around the dog where it lay motionless on the ground, it’s head at a strange angle that made me queasy to look at. I watched for its tongue to move, or its chest to rise or fall, but there was nothing, no motion at all.
Tommy knelt down next to the dog. He reached out his hand out to touch it but caught himself, teetering on his heels as the action almost sent him toppling over on the dog.
“There’s so much blood,” he said in a whisper, as if talking to himself. And there was. Standing this close we could see the sharp gash on the animal’s head, just behind its left eye socket. Blood oozed from this jagged tear and dripped slowly to the ground.
“I didn’t mean to. I– I just threw it and I didn’t think it would–” Jimmy stammered, not quite able to make himself say it. “I didn’t mean to throw it that hard, it just flew and — but you know I didn’t mean to, right?” Whether he was talking to us or the dog I couldn’t be sure, but either way no one was listening.
“I think I can see the skull,” Tommy was enthralled. “Yeah, that’s bone right there, that white stuff under the fur.”
Jimmy’s continued to talk over Tommy’s grisly post mortem. “I didn’t mean it. I just threw it and– You know I didn’t mean it, right Mitch?”
He turned to me. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t turn to respond.
We had been sitting on the opposite side of the river, throwing stones — skipping the flat ones across the surface of the water, and tossing the round ones too just to hear a splash. It was a sunny day, one of the first real days of summer, and the world around us seemed to hum with lazy anticipation.
I skipped a rock across the river and heard it clack satisfyingly on to the opposite bank.
“Big deal,” Tommy said, “I skipped a rock across Spring Lake last summer that made it all the way across, that that lake is way wider.” As he said this he side-handed a flat stone, but it sank to the bottom with a plunk on the first hit. He shrugged as if this didn’t disprove his statement.
“Yeah well I skipped a rock across Puget Sound once. Beat that!” Jimmy said, smiling as he lobbed a rock overhand in to the bushes on the other side of the river. After three summers of baseball he had the best arm of all three of us, and we all knew it.
“Prove it,” Tommy said.
“You prove it,” Jimmy said. And that was that.
Tommy walked back to a rotted-out log to sit and stew, picking up pebbles between his legs and dropping them back to the ground with a clatter. Jimmy and I continued to throw, pretending not to notice.
A loud bark echoed across the river, and a dog bounded on to the rocky bank on the opposite shore. It had a collar, but no owner followed it on to the river bank. It was a brown mutt with a long lively tail and ears that flapped around its head as it ran. It looked too well groomed to be a stray. We watched it for a moment, saying nothing, then Tommy stood up on the gravel behind us with a crunch.
“Hey Jimmy, I bet you couldn’t hit that dog,” Tommy said.
“Why would I want to?” asked Jimmy.
“Fine, I guess you couldn’t do it then.”
“I could do it, I just don’t want to.”
“Right. Because, you can’t do it.”
“I can!” Jimmy’s tosses became faster, more aggressive.
“Yeah, yeah.” Tommy was getting to Jimmy, and he could tell. A wicked grin spread its way across his face. “Your dad can’t throw worth shit either, so I guess it’s no surprise.”
Jimmy’s father had been on a tour of duty overseas for a year and a half now, and Tommy knew it. He also knew that the last time someone had talked about Jimmy’s father like that he went home with a torn shirt, bleeding from the mouth.
“Fuck you Tommy,” said Jimmy.
“Come on guys,” I said, stepping between them, but Tommy continued.
“Fuck your mother. After all, your dad’s not around to do the job.”
“Shut the fuck up!” With this, Jimmy picked up a rounded stone and threw it across the river with a force that looked like it should have pulled his arm clean out of his shoulder. The dog caught sight of the stone in mid flight and, no doubt confusing it for a baseball, bounded across the rocks and jumped for it with its mouth open. As the rock connected with its skull there was a sickening, muffled thud, and the dog dropped to the ground.
We stood frozen for a moment, saying nothing. Then, without a word, I waded in to the river, stepping gingerly from stone to slippery, submerged stone. After a few steps, Jimmy followed. Then finally, Tommy waded in after us.
Now, Jimmy stood next to me on the opposite bank with tears gathering in the corners of his red-lidded eyes.
“You know I didn’t mean it, right Mitch?”
I glanced at Jimmy now, not turning completely to face him. I couldn’t look him in the eye, but I nodded, and that seemed to be enough.
Tommy stood up from the dog’s side. “Guys, did you look at all the blood?”
Without thinking I cocked my fist back and threw it at Tommy’s face, connecting hard with his left cheekbone. He took a step back in surprise and tripped, landing hard on his back. He groaned and rolled to his side, and already blood was leaking from his left nostril, leaving a red trail across his cheek.
I had never punched anyone before, and the pain was immediate. The point of impact at my knuckle exploded, and I felt reverberations through my arm all the way to my shoulder. But I didn’t let on. I couldn’t, not in front of them. Even as my hand throbbed I just opened and closed my fist, staring down at Tommy where he lay on the dry stones, a few speckles of his blood already dotting the rocks near his face.
“Mother fucker!” Tommy shouted, but his eyes stayed tightly shut, his face like a clenched fist.
Jimmy just stared at me, a single tear leaving a shining contrail as it rolled down his chin. I looked at him for a moment, still flexing my aching hand, then turned around and waded back across the river.