Last summer, summer 1986. The summer a dog killed my little brother and I killed the dog. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. And I still think it was, even if it landed me in the stupid church youth program where I’m writing this now.
So here’s the story. Read it, see for yourself, and you might just agree with me.
Spencer, my little brother, was a preemie, and he also had a bad case of diabetes. Like any older brother, I sometimes teased him, and never let him use my Walkman tape player cause he might break it, but loved him like crazy. And on account of all his hospital visits, we’d been through a lot more together than most brothers.
The adults say it was the diabetes that took him out, and not the dog, but I know better. Spencer had survived all sorts of things ever since he was a baby, and I’d held his hand through many of them. What took him out was Rocco, that awful rescue mutt the Josephs adopted from the animal shelter. It saw he was fragile and went for him.
It went for him as he was riding his bike, in the street right in front of our house. It ran out growling, leaped with its jaws open, knocked him off his bike. It would’ve torn him apart then and there, but Mr. Alexander was right there to stop it. He ran over and shouted at the dog till it loped back to that spot where it always liked to hide, underneath the trashed Cadillac the Josephs have had on their property for as long as I can remember.
I couldn’t dash across the street in time to be the hero, but from where I was (doing a pretty bad job raking sticks in our yard) I saw the whole thing go down. Spencer looked so small there on the ground, small and scared, and I felt so powerless, as if it was only luck that saved him from that dog. I bet you’ve seen someone you love like this, or at least you can imagine what it’d be like. Since it was my job to protect my little brother, I already felt like I’d failed—and this was before we knew he was going to die!
So we checked him out real good, and luckily he seemed fine (other than the scrapes from being knocked off his bike). And he said he was okay, so it looked like that was the end of that—boy, was I grateful, since I’d read that dogs kill more people than sharks.
Except, he wasn’t okay, which we found out the next day. He started acting weird and tired like he sometimes did when his blood sugar got low. So Mom set him up on the couch and tried to give him a granola bar and some apple juice, even let him watch Tom & Jerry on the nice color TV in the living room instead of the cheap old black-and-white one in our room. But he barely ate anything.
Then he passed out, rolled off the couch onto the floor, and started shaking! He’d passed out a couple times before (Mom said they were called “diabetic episodes”), but never this bad. He’d never shaken like this. And the way his eyes rolled back in his head almost made me want to pass out too. But there was no time for that—we had to get him to the hospital.
We got him there, and they put him on the tubes and stuff, but it was too late. Like I said, everyone chalked it up to the diabetes without a second thought. It’s a dangerous disease, true. But I knew it was all triggered by that dog. Spencer was scared, might’ve even thought he was going to die then and there as that hunk of a dog leaped toward him. Obviously, it must’ve been the stress that made him go all diabetic the next day.
It was a real bummer to know this, because every time I went outside, I had to look at the dog that killed my brother. Of course the monster growled at me and taunted me—it knew what it did, and it seemed to be proud about the whole thing. And nobody else saw the connection I saw. Not even Mom and Dad would listen to me. I loved my little bro, and every time I thought of him I also thought of the dog. I hated that dog.
So when I saw the flier stapled to the telephone pole, a “Community Meeting to Discuss Leash Laws and Pet-Ownership Etiquette”, I ripped it right off and brought it home to Dad.
“Can I go?” I said, and showed him the flier.
He was laying on the couch watching TV, and he didn’t answer me the first time (he almost never does, ever since Spencer died), so I asked again. I know you’re thinking I should’ve left him alone, but trust me, this was important.
“Can I please go to the meeting? I need to make sure they call Animal Control on that dog that killed Spencer.”
“Jack, we’ve been over this before. Just forget it. Please.”
“I can’t. Just let me go to the meeting.”
“I’d have to go with you,” he said, as if that made the whole thing impossible.
We went back and forth a little more, and I could see I was wearing him down—a special skill of mine. You don’t need to know everything I said, but the important part is by the end, he agreed to go with me. I promised I’d just talk a little bit about how I would feel safer playing outside if the dog was on a leash, and then we could leave.
So the night of, there I was at the community center with all the adults, sitting next to Dad in the back of the room. Mostly it was adults going back and forth, talking about leash laws in other places. A few people who knew about Spencer’s death gave sad looks to me and Dad, and said they were there for us if we needed anything.
But like I said, nobody brought up what that dog did to him, and I sat there for about 20 minutes waiting for my turn to talk. It didn’t look like Dad was gonna help me either. Not that I expected him to, cause he seemed in pretty bad shape over the whole thing. Finally I realized they weren’t gonna give me a turn, so I just stood up and started talking.
“That dog Rocco killed my brother,” I said. “It attacked him, scared the life out of him, and he died the very next day. How do you not see that?”
“Jack!” Dad said, but I wasn’t gonna let him interrupt me.
“I say we call Animal Control and let them decide what to do,” I said. “They’re the experts, and that dog is too dangerous, leash law or no leash law.” What I thought but didn’t say was that the Josephs, being the trashy clan they are, would never follow the leash law even if there was one.
“Jack, I am so sorry about your brother,” Mrs. Joseph said. “I know how hard it must be on you to have lost him, and we’ll try to keep Rocco on a leash from now on, but Animal Control can’t just take away regular dogs for running around and jumping on people. I’m sure our Rocco is very sad too about Spencer… he’s such a sweet dog, and he was just playing.”
“Does that sound like playing?” I said. “The dog’s crazy!”
She just looked over at her husband Mr. Joseph. One of those glances adults do that says “I can’t wait for this kid to stop blabbering.”
But, you see, I was trying to do the right thing, and do it the official way. I really did tell them the truth up there—that dog totally went after Spencer. And the nerve of Mrs. Joseph, to care more about her precious attack dog than my little brother. So I didn’t stop. I was the only kid at the meeting, and I was also the only reasonable person. Adults suck sometimes.
“Forget the leash. That damn dog is a menace and should be euthanized,” I said. I thought those big words were pretty impressive.
“Jack. That’s enough,” Dad said to me, much louder than before. “Sorry about that,” he said to everyone else. “I do think we need a leash law, but no, I do not blame Spencer’s death on Rocco.”
“How do you not see the connection?” I said, but he shushed me.
“This is too much. We need to go home,” he said, just to me, and stood up. There they were again, all those sad-faced adults feeling sorry for him.
I was expecting some sort of lecture, but Dad didn’t say anything the whole way. So all we did was walk—less than a quarter mile to get back home, maybe two or three blocks. This used to be a nicer neighborhood, but now the houses are ugly colors, the sidewalk is crumbling, and people have awful mutts that they call “cute”.
All the while, I was getting madder and madder, and I couldn’t get that dog out of my head. I imagined what Spencer would think of me. He trusted me to protect him, and I’d failed. He’d made it through a lot—all those times in the hospital ever since he was a baby, all the things he couldn’t do that the other kids could—only to be taken out by a beast with rotten teeth and a coat full of fleas.
Mom and Dad were sad about losing Spencer too. They still are, obviously. And they always say they understand why I was angry, but I don’t know about that—if they really did understand, they would have listened more, and they wouldn’t have forced me to bring that dog to justice on my own.
You gotta believe me, my life would’ve been much easier if they were right. So when we got home, I tried to distract myself.
I decided to read a new book someone had given me as a gift after Spencer died: Harold Jones and the Backwoods Adventure. I’d read some other books about him already and Harold was my favorite teen detective. Perfect to take my mind off that stupid meeting.
But actually, I think it was a sign, because one of the first things Harold did in the book was he escaped his captors by killing their vicious guard dogs with rat poison. I read that page about five times, over and over. It hit me that Harold’s strategy might just be the ticket. He knew that sometimes dangerous dogs had to be taken out, and he also knew he had to be tricky to get it done.
I knew Dad had rat poison out in the garage, because he’d told me never to mess with it. And another thing I learned from the book was that Harold had to mix the rat poison with something tasty to make the dogs eat it up.
There was some leftover shredded steak in the fridge, from the night Spencer died in the hospital, when Dad went out to get dinner but none of us felt like eating or doing much of anything. So we’d brought the leftovers home, cause that’s what you do with leftovers, but nobody seemed interested in eating the food from that night and it’d just been sitting in our fridge for two weeks. By then the steak was starting to go bad, but it’d be good enough to poison one evil dog.
Maybe I could’ve come up with an even better plan if I had more time, but something told me I had to get it done that night, before I slept on it and chickened out.
I know for sure that if Spencer was still alive he would’ve wanted to come along and help me take out that dog, not just for his own sake but for every kid in the neighborhood. And I wouldn’t have let him, because I knew it was going to be a dangerous job.
So once I was sure Mom and Dad were asleep, I headed to the kitchen and then the tool shed to get everything together, and the end result was this: Me walking down our driveway, bits of steak in one hand, bag of rat poison in the other. The steak had some weird juice dripping down my hand and arm, and the RatX bag let out this weird dust whenever I shook it, but I had to get this done.
I crossed the street to the Josephs’ place. Lucky me—they weren’t home (maybe still at the meeting), and that dog Rocco was in the back yard. They kept it outside even at night like the wild animal it was, but at least it was fenced in. What I did was I crumbled up the chunks of rat poison onto the shredded meat, and I went ahead and pushed the stuff through the chain-link fence so it fell to the ground near the dog. Of course the dog started growling, but he always did that, and he wanted the meat so he came over.
Afraid of getting bit, I whipped my fingers real quick away from the fence when he came up, but luckily the stuff was already through. He sniffed it, took a bite. He didn’t even care that half of what he gobbled up was dirt, and I bet he had no idea that stuff was rat poison at all.
If there was an easier way to deal with Rocco, this would not be the story of me killing him. I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of doing the deed, right up until the dog ate the poison. Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pretty good. But you have to understand—it wasn’t because I like killing things. It was because I felt like a real doer of justice, finally making things right for Spencer.
But I wasn’t in the clear yet. Next thing I knew, there was this bright light on me and the dog. For the first time I saw his eyes, those black balls in his muscly dog face, and I accidentally stared right in them. Let me tell you, it’s never a good idea to make eye contact with a dog. He stopped eating, snapped at the fence where my fingers just were.
“Jack! What the hell are you doing over here? You can’t sneak out and disappear on us like that!” I heard Dad’s voice coming up quick behind me. So that’s where the light was coming from.
“I’m doing the right thing!” I said. I decided right then that I wouldn’t be a wimp. Dad could chew me out all he wanted, shine his bright flashlight in my eyes, but I wouldn’t let him convince me that I didn’t do the right thing.
But I didn’t have to explain any more about what I did or didn’t do, because Dad must’ve seen the bag of rat poison and put two and two together.
“Jack, why?” He let go of the flashlight—it landed in the overgrown grass near the fence—and we were back in the dark. Then he put his head in his hands.
“This was all for Spencer,” I said. “He would want this.”
“My son is killing somebody’s dog,” he said, not really to me. And then again: “I’m going to have to deal with my son killing a dog.”
“What do you mean, deal with it? They’ll never know it was me, and the neighborhood will be a whole lot safer!”
“Be quiet. Just be quiet. You’ve said and done enough.”
The dog didn’t like the two of us getting all dramatic and stealing his thunder—maybe he knew that steak-and-poison was gonna be his last supper, and he wanted to go down in infamy like a death row murderer with no regrets. He started barking, looking all of a sudden like he was more interested in eating us than whatever was left of the poison. Obviously he’d already eaten plenty and that stuff takes time to kick in, so I figured I’d probably already won… but at what cost?
“We just lost Spencer. Now you’re our only child, and you’re making it so hard on us. How could you do this?” Dad said, although I could barely hear him over the barking. And he started crying. It was only the second time I’d seen him cry—the first was right after Spencer died—and this time, it was because of me.
All I could do was stare down at my feet kicking the dusty ground.
I knew all along I was making it hard on him and Mom—I just thought eventually they would see why I had to do what I did. But just then, Dad looked so sad that I started to figure he’d never see. And I started to feel bad about doing that to him.
It’s weird, because I’m still pretty sure I did the right thing. I’m glad that dog is dead and buried or burned up or whatever they did with it. But now I gotta think about Dad crying because of me.
It took Dad some time to collect himself, then finally he grabbed my arm—not hard, just firm—and slowly started pulling me back towards home. For the second time that night, we walked home all quiet and sad. I wanted to stick around to watch and make sure the dog was really gonna die, after all I went through to make it happen, but I’d already gone too far for poor old Dad. All I could do was hope.
I never even saw Mom when we got home, cause Dad just put me straight to bed. You might be thinking I got off easy (no angry lecture, no spanking) but now that I think about it, this whole silent treatment was probably worse.
Harold Jones and the Backwoods Adventure was still sitting on my bed from before, but I refused to read a single word, cause I knew I’d just flip right back to the dog-poisoning part.
It would’ve been nice to see the dog die myself—again, not because I like killing things, just to make sure my plan really worked—but at least I got to find out pretty early the next morning. I’d barely slept, but to try and keep things normal I showed up in the kitchen at the usual time to eat my usual Frosted Flakes cereal. The phone rang, and then out of the answering machine came Mrs. Joseph’s voice.
“Just calling to let you know our dog Rocco died last night. We went to the vet and they said he got into some rat poison, and there was nothing they could do. Based on what he said at the meeting, I’m sure Jack will be happy. Anyway, since you live across the street I wanted to ask if you saw anything going on at our place last night? We’re trying to find out what happened. Call us back if you saw anything. Thanks!”
Did she suspect me? Did she want money from us? I didn’t know, but I did know that after what I’d put him through, Dad would be better off not hearing this message. I rewound the tape on the answering machine, erased it, and hoped Mrs. Joseph would never, ever call back.
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that simple. A few minutes later the phone rang again, and this time I just picked up and hung up. As soon as I did, I heard Mom and Dad moving around in their room, like the ring had woken them up this time. But it was another hour and two more rings before Dad actually came out into the kitchen in his underwear. His face looked just like it had the night before—very saggy.
“Who’s calling?” he said.
I couldn’t think of a good lie quickly enough, so I didn’t answer.
He must’ve seen the wheels turning in my head trying to come up with something, cause he sighed and said, “Jack, don’t lie to me.”
When I still didn’t answer, he grabbed the phone out of my hand and put it up to his ear. I heard Mrs. Joseph’s voice nagging through the phone, and now it was Dad’s turn to say stuff like “OK” and “I understand”, which is how I could tell he was siding with Mrs. Joseph. All I could do was wait there.
“You’ve screwed up, Jack,” was all Dad said once he hung up.
It was a few days later that him and Mom actually decided just how bad I’d screwed up. Long story short, I got thrown into this church youth program every Saturday and Sunday, even though Mom and Dad barely go to church anymore.
They talk about Jesus some, but we also do wholesome stuff like playing games (mostly dumb ones). They act like it’s some kind of fun thing, but I know everyone here was sent by their parents. Some of them really are bad, like the kid who I heard was using drugs at age 11. In my case, the church people act like I’m totally mental because of Spencer’s death. They want me to talk about my feelings, how killing a dog was not the appropriate response, how I can get better. They say it might help to think of him going to heaven. It doesn’t help—I still miss Spencer a ton. I’ve tried to tell them that the only thing that did help was doing justice on the dog that killed him, but that just seems to make them more concerned.
Remember how, back when Dad found me over at the Josephs’ place, I decided I wouldn’t let him convince me I wasn’t right? Well, he barely even tried. But it was pretty rough for me to see him basically fall apart—and lately I feel like the church people have just about succeeded at making me feel bad about what I did. That’s why I had to write this. I had to get my side of the story story down on paper (on their own fancy church paper, no less) before they could mess with me too much.
So what I’ve done is put this story together—a lot of time, a lot of paper, a lot of bad memories—and after what I’ve been through, I deserve something. Please, you have to agree with me. It’s all I have left.