The Final Act

April 28, 2011
I can remember sitting on my daddy’s lap at six years old, my face buried in his neck, his shirt soaking up my tears. I remember his soothing hand on my back, shushing my whimpers and telling me everything would be just fine.

We lived in a simple two-story farm house in the valley of North Carolina, with apple trees cluttering the yard. The white siding was darkened by dirt and dust, and our windows were never clear. Mama kept the shades pulled back during the day, and the sunlight that came through caught the dust floating through the air in the kitchen.

The barn behind the house leaned slightly, and looked as though it could tip over any moment. It was built from old, faded wood, no longer brown, but a dusty gray color, and something that would splinter your palm if you ran your hands down the panel.

Sometimes sissy and I would run through the house barefoot, just our summer dresses on, and we’d scamper around the table and out to the yard, pretending we were wild ponies. We’d watch papa in the field, caring for the cattle or baling hay. Sometimes he would take us out to the field with him to do farm work, and oh how we enjoyed that. I loved riding on the tractor and watching as papa made the hay roll into bunches. I loved the smell of harvest season, and the sound it made when the grain was grinding.

Then there were the rainy days when mama wouldn’t let us play in the yard, and we would sit on the porch with June, our Spaniel, and watch the water fall from the sky like tear drops. Mama used to say it was the world’s way of telling everyone it was sad, and when the thunder rumbled, it meant the world was angry. She was often in the house at these times, sweeping or cooking Sunday dinner, and we’d hear papa in the barn cutting wood for the fire and stove.

At night, sissy and I would huddle in my small bed as the voices of my parents’ argument would rise through the cracks in the floorboard. She would cling to me so tight my body would ache from the tension drifting from hers. When she relaxed and I knew she was asleep, I would tuck her under the covers and go sit by my window on the floor, looking out across our property.

When the house became silent again, and my father began to snore below, I would creep back down stairs and out the front door. June, lying in her bed in our dining room, would raise her head off her paws, and let out a little whimper. “Hush girl,” I would whisper to her, and she’d put her head back down and sigh.

My bare feet would race across the yard to the farthest apple tree, the one that was taller than the rest and sat just outside the fenced pasture, giving the cattle shade in the summer. If the moon were shining down, I would take a book and read until late hours, so late that you no longer heard the owls’ who-who-whoing or the crickets chirping. It was my chance of escape, if only for a little while.

The summer I turned fourteen, there was a terrible drought. The grass turned brown, and the blades would cut your feet if you ran barefoot through the yard. Papa had trouble growing the grain and corn, and the weather was so hot that sometimes sissy and I would take blankets outside and sleep under the trees at night when it was just a bit cooler.

But in August, it finally rained. And it rained for days. Papa had been bailing hay for the past two weeks. The day it began to rain, sissy and I were sitting under one of the apple trees, and I was reading to her, The Velveteen Rabbit. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the rabbit burned, and I felt a drop of wetness touch my arm. Thinking it was only her leaning over onto my shoulders, I started to look over at her, ready to tell her it was only a story, and wipe her tears from her cheeks. But she was lying back on the grass. When I felt another heavy drop hit my skin, I looked up through the leaves of the tree at a darkened sky.

“Sissy!” I cried. “Sissy, it’s raining! It’s raining!”

As papa ran from the field, pushing hay into the barn, sissy and I ran to the middle of the yard, dancing and giggling as the rain pelted our skin, falling harder. It beaded on our skin, and we turned our faces toward the sky, letting it drench our face like tears, catching droplets in our mouth.

Papa had pushed most of the hay into the barn, and was nowhere to be found. Sissy and I were drenched and beginning to shiver, the temperature dropping from the rain. We ran to the house, dripping onto the wooden floor all the way to our bedroom, mama screaming after us the whole time, but with laughter in her voice.

When sissy and I scrambled back downstairs an hour later to the smell of cobbler, bundled in our pajamas, papa was still nowhere in sight. Sissy and I sat down at the kitchen table, mama setting a plate of cobbler in front of each of us. June was at our heels, whining, begging.

When my cobbler was half finished, I looked out the kitchen window and saw course black smoke billowing from the barn, as if it were coming from a chimney fire. But the barn didn’t have a chimney, and the smoke was too dark for that, anyway.

“Mama?” I asked. “What’s going on in the barn?”

Mama was shaking out a towel, and glanced out the window on her way to the sink. But then she quickly looked back out again. “Oh my God!” She said, covering her mouth with her hand, letting the towel fall to the floor, and then bolting out the back door. Sissy and I watched in confusion as she raced across the yard toward the barn. Then I realized. The barn was on fire. And papa was inside.

Sissy and I ran out after mama, June on our heels, barking a terrifying bark I hadn’t heard before. It was as if she knew something was terribly wrong.

As we drew nearer, we could see the flames beginning to engulf the house, and hear the crackling of the fire. It was a bad dream, a nightmare, and I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched my arm hard, expecting to open my eyes and see my bedroom walls and sissy sleeping soundlessly beside me. Instead, I heard my father calling from the barn. He was trapped inside, and the only way out was blocked by the rising flames.

“Thomas!” My mother shrieked, dancing around the barn, waving her hands. She turned to my sister, “Amberlynn, call the fire station! Go!” As sissy hurried toward the house, mama turned to me with tears filling her eyes. “Emma,” she said, her voice shaking. But she didn’t say anything else. She just turned back toward the barn, wringing her hands in front of her, still calling my father’s name.

Sissy came back moments later, panting and crying. I took her into my arms, the first time I had held her since she was three. She buried her head in my neck, and I remembered when I was six years old, and climbed onto papa’s lap, because one of the children at school had teased me for my red hair, calling me carrot top.

“Shh, child. It’ll be alright.” He said with a soothing hand on my back. “Those kids are just jealous.” He took my hair in between his fingers, as if he were admiring it. “They don’t realize just how special you’re going to be to them. They don’t realize that this red color is not the color of a devil, but the color of an angel.”

When I giggled at the strange analogy, he kissed the top of my head, and set me back down on my feet and went back to reading his newspaper.

I was quickly pulled back to the present by a scream unlike any other I had ever heard. Mama was on her knees just feet from the barn, which was now totally alight. I rushed toward mama, and tugged on her arm. “Step back,” I said. “You can’t be that close!” She was wailing, and I was scared. I had never heard sounds like this come from my mama, the woman who was strong enough to handle sissy’s and my fights, and who took charge when papa was in a rotten mood. Now, she seemed broken and weak.

“Mama, come on!” I screamed over the yell of the flames. Finally, she gave in, and allowed me to pull her away from the barn. She knelt on the grass, burying her face in her hands.

June was wining at my heels, looking up at me with sadness in her eyes. “I know girl,” I whispered to her. “It will be okay. The fire station is on the way.”

But it was as if she didn’t hear me. She barked up at me, then took off running toward the barn. “June!” I yelled after her. Mama looked up in confusion, and sissy began sobbing harder. “June, get back here!” But she wasn’t listening.

As I watched our dog approach the barn, I realized what she was about. She knew what was happening, she knew papa was trapped, and she meant to help in some way. She crept under the side of the barn, and disappeared.

“What is she doing?” sissy asked, looking up at me helplessly.

“She’s going to rescue papa,” I replied. Sissy’s eyes grew wide and she turned her attention back to the barn, waiting anxiously.

I could hear June in the barn, her barking muffled by the roar of the fire. I could hear papa shouting, and I was relieved when I heard his soft cries, because it meant he was still alive.

After ten minutes of agonized waiting, there was a loud crash, and June came bursting from the barn, pulling papa by his shirt tail as he was dragged across the ground by his butt. June brought him over to us, both of them covered in black soot, and breathing hard. Soon after, the roof collapsed and flames rose high into the air just as a siren wailed into our drive and a large red truck pulled into the drive, men jumping out with hoses and racing toward the barn.

Papa was laying on the ground, catching his breath, a hand on his chest. Mama threw herself onto him, sobbing hard. “You’re alive! You’re okay!” She cried, barely audible through her tears and the noise as the firemen fought the flames.

But my attention was on none of this. Instead, I was focused on June, a few feet away, panting, looking at the world around her through half-open eyes. I walked slowly toward her. “June girl,” I said softly, kneeling down and scratching behind her ears. “You did so well! I’m so proud of you.” She lifted her head only slightly, and licked my palm gently.

Papa was on his feet now, talking to the chief fireman. I left June’s side to go to papa, taking hold of his hand. He squeezed mine in his, and looked down at me with a tired smile upon his face. Then he turned back to the fire chief. The fire had begun by the wet hay papa was storing in the barn.

Two hours later, the fire was completely out, and mama was in the kitchen fussing over papa at the table. He had scrapes up and down his arms, and a large gash from his eye to his jaw line, but he was otherwise unharmed and healthy. And he was alive.

June was under the table, still panting. I had tried to give her some water, but she only turned her head, and looked up at me with sadness in her eyes. One of her paws was resting on papa’s foot. He reached down and patted her head. “You’re a good girl, June. Good girl.” June sighed as if in contentment and closed her eyes, falling into a heavy sleep.

The next day, smoke was still billowing from the ashes in the backyard where the barn used to stand. Sissy and I stood staring, our hands hanging limply at our sides. We were in disbelief. Mama came out the back door, but as soon as her eyes landed on the mess, a strange sound came from her, and she covered her mouth and ran back into the house.

It stayed this way for the next couple days. Finally, the smoke ceased, and the embers left from the barn began to cool enough for sissy, me, and papa to approach, and begin cleaning the mess.

June stayed in the kitchen all the while. When we were outside, we would prop open the backdoor and she would lie in front of it watching us intently. “C’mon girl!” I’d call. “Come play!” But she would just sigh and hide her nose in her paws.

One night, three days after the fire, I crept downstairs after everyone else had fallen asleep. June was in the kitchen as always, lying in her bed. This time, instead of creeping past her outside, I went to her and tied the rope we used when walking her loosely around her neck. She obediently got up and followed me, but slower than usual. I led her out to an apple tree, and settled myself under it. She plopped down beside me immediately. I scratched her ears, and rubbed her nose like she liked.

“Oh, June girl,” I said. “Remember when you first came here? Eight summers ago, in June. You found us. You were just a scrawny little thing. Searching for food and mama got so mad at you for messin’ with her garden! But you didn’t run away, you looked up at her all innocent, and from then on, you were ours. And now look at ya! You’re fat, girl.”

June looked up at me and huffed, as if I had insulted her. Then she laid her head on my lap, and slowly closed her eyes. Suddenly, I knew what was coming, and it made sense to me. As June lay there, her breathing became more shallow, until she took her last breath. Tears filled my eyes as I continued to stroke the top of her head, feeling the softness of her fur. Finally, I gently lifted her head off my lap, and walked into the house. I would tell my family the next day what had happened.

The next day over breakfast, as tears streamed down sissy’s cheeks and filled mama’s eyes, papa explained that he had seen the signs that June was getting older and weaker and it wouldn’t have been long anyway.

“The smoke that filled her lungs was too much for the old gal to handle,” he explained. I heard the quaver of emotion in his voice. I remembered all the times papa had been so mad at June. She had chewed up his most expensive dress shoes, the pair he wore every Sunday for church. When mama had made Thanksgiving dinner three years ago for the whole family, June had jumped on the table, knocking it over, and attacked the turkey mama had just taken from the oven. I thought papa was gonna put her down then and there.

“Emma,” my mom said then, pulling me out of my memory. “Would you like to bury June?”

I nodded weakly, and sissy said through her tears, “It needs to be special.”

So we made it special.

Papa got the shovel from the cupboard, and we all followed him outside to where June was still lying under the tree where I left her last night. We waited as papa dug a hole, which he didn’t dig very deep. Then he lifted up the lifeless body that was June, and laid her gently in the ground.

We gathered in a circle around our beloved dog. Sissy was crying so hard that she was choking, and mama held a handkerchief to her nose, her bottom lip quivering. Even papa had tears welling in his eyes.

But I was not crying. June had saved papa, and I would forever cherish her for that. She had been eight years old and dying anyway. In a final act of heroism, she had given my family a final gift by giving papa another chance at life.

We each held something that reminded us of June in our hands, small knickknacks to bury with her. One by one, we each stepped forward to say our farewell and give a gift back to June.

Mama stepped forward first. She placed a tattered blanket overtop June. She had sewn it just days before June showed up on our doorstep. As a puppy, it was her bed, but as she grew older, she began chewing on it and soon, there was nothing left but a piece of fabric.

“Thank you for saving my husband,” Mama said, beginning to cry harder as she stepped back.

Sissy stepped forward then, throwing a teddy bear into the hole. The arm was chewed off. It had been sissy’s favorite when she was a toddler, and she had thrown a tantrum when she found June under the table chewing on the arm, the bear lying three feet away.

“I know you wanted this,” she said. “Now it’s yours.” Then she turned away and buried her head into mama’s middle, sobbing harder than ever. Mama patted her on the back of the head, then took her hand, and walked her toward the house.

“She can’t handle this,” Mama said. “To tell the truth, I don’t know that I can either.”

Papa and I watched them disappear into the house, then turned back toward June, lying peacefully in the ground.

Papa stooped down, and kneeled on one knee beside her. He then dug in his pocket and pulled out a tiny wood chipping. It was gray, and burned up, a chipping from the pile of ashes that was the barn. He placed it right beside her paw. “I don’t know what I would have done without you in there, June girl,” he said with a shaky voice. He wiped his palms on his knees, still staring down at the ground, shaking his head. When he stood back up again, his eyes were red and puffy. He had been crying, and tried to hide his tears from me.

“Papa,” I said. “It’s okay to cry. She was part of our family, she wasn’t just our dog.”

He nodded, pressing his lips together. “Are you going to put something in?”

“No,” I said, folding my hands in front of me.

“Would you like me to put the dirt back over her?”

“No,” I said again. I stared down at the ground, and I could feel him watching me. Finally, I saw his boots move and he walked away from me, leaving me alone.

I sat on the ground and folded my legs beneath me. I didn’t say anything. The sky above was cloudless, and the sun was beating down again. The rain had gone. The house was silent, and the yard behind looked bare without the barn standing in it.

Two weeks previous, June, sissy, and I had ventured into the barn to play in the hayloft. June had been joyous chasing the barn mice, and trying to chase sissy and me up the ladder. But it had been too steep for her to climb.

The world around me began to blur as tears filled my eyes thinking about everything June would miss now, and everything we would miss without her.

Finally, I reached into my pocket and pulled out an old picture. It was grainy, and brown from the years that had passed since it had been taken. I had been storing it in the drawer beside the bed. June and me, just a year after she had come to us. She had grown, but not yet to her full size. We were sitting on the front porch, my arm around her neck, her tongue hanging out, panting as usual. It looked as though she were smiling. It was the only photograph I had of her and me together.

I reached down and placed it in the hole, right next to her heart. “I love you,” I whispered.

I stood up and began to cover her with the dirt. Once that was finished, I found an old rock and placed it on top of the mound, marking the grave. Then I wiped my tears, stood up tall, and walked back toward the emptier house.





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PJD17 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm
excelelent work i really liked this keep it up  could you please check out and comment on my story Numb.  i would really appreciate the feedback
 
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