Nathan didn’t know how long he’d been ignoring the growing light beyond his eyelids. For all he knew, it could have been seven in the morning or noon. Finally, however, he knew that he’d have to get up. His headache wasn’t getting any better while he lay there. He opened his eyes to the blinding sunlight. The sun was right above his head, and shone straight into his eyes. He sat up to get it out of his face.
Sitting up made him nauseous, but he did it anyway, so that he could get the light out of his eyes and take a look around. He was on the plain. Behind him, above the ditch, there was a barbed wire fence running away in either direction. On the opposite side of the highway another fence did the same thing. Everything was sepia toned. The fields were brown and only got browner with the sunlight on them. The fence posts were brown and the wire between them was grayish-brown. Even the highway had a brownish tinge to the asphalt.
The sunlight was bothering him again, so he put a hand up over his face. He was lying in the ditch beside the road. He lit a cigarette and peered up and down the highway. There didn’t seem to be any traffic going in either direction. At the bottom of the ditch there was a little collection of still water and a few marsh plants struggling gamely against the surrounding dryness of the prairie.
He stood up, which again made him feel sick, and then he went over to the road. Far away to the west, he could see the outlines of mountains. They looked almost like some sort of hallucination—they were covered in a sort of cloud and it seemed like you should be able to look right through them. To the east, he could see nothing but more plains stretching out along the straightness of the highway.
He stood looking both ways for minute. He thought about hitchhiking, but he wasn’t sure how long it might be before a car came along. He couldn’t see any traffic at all. And even if a vehicle did pass that way, there was no guarantee that it would pick him up. Even in the daylight, it was obvious that this was a lonely stretch of road, and while he knew that he was harmless, he also had no illusions about how he would look in a driver’s eyes. It would be obvious that he’d slept in the ditch that night. And while he couldn’t smell himself, he knew he probably had an unpleasant odour of smoke and sweat.
He sat down on the asphalt. He figured that he would have to start walking, but he really didn’t want to. He already felt hot from the sunlight beating on him, and it had made him feel even more light-headed and sickly than the hangover had already managed.
However, he also knew that if he didn’t start walking, he might as well just bed down and go to sleep again, because he wouldn’t get anywhere at all. He really didn’t want to spend another night in a ditch, so he forced himself to stand up and start walking. He headed west, toward the distant mountains. He knew he’d never walk that far, but, nevertheless, it was good to be able to see what he was heading for.
Luckily, he had an almost full pack of cigarettes. He smoked three in the first hour. He knew they weren’t helping him, and were, in fact, making his unpleasant trek even less pleasant, but he was still glad that he had them.
After the first hour, however, he decided that he’d have to start conserving them. There were plenty left, but if he was going to be walking all day, there wouldn’t be many later. He hoped that he’d come to a town soon, but he wasn’t counting on it, so he didn’t know when he’d be able to buy another pack.
He didn’t have much money, probably not enough for a hotel room, even if he managed to find one along the road. However, at least he’d be able to buy cigarettes and a coffee or something. Sit on a proper chair for a while, and find out where exactly he was. However, he didn’t get his hopes up. Even after an hour of walking, he couldn’t see any sign of settlement ahead of him.
He knew he couldn’t be too far from the town of Sanderson, because that’s where he had been drinking the night before, and that’s where he had gotten a ride from. The asshole that had given him a ride had been driving for about an hour, he guessed, before he had kicked Nathan out. They’d gotten into a yelling match about irrigation or some farming thing. Nathan wondered why he felt compelled to argue about things that he didn’t really know much of anything about. Though he knew that he had the tendency to just start yelling about whatever topic was on offer when he was drunk. It wasn’t the first time that it had gotten him in trouble. Usually, though, when he started beaking off, he would just get punched a couple of times, not abandoned at the side of the road.
Anyway, he knew he couldn’t be far from Sanderson, but he couldn’t remember what direction it might have been in. He couldn’t really remember how long they’d been driving either. Besides being belligerent, he wasn’t really all that good at being drunk. You would think that someone who did it so often, would be practiced and skilled at it.
Nathan wasn’t like that, however. He got focussed on whatever subject he’d found to argue about, and he forgot to pay attention to anything else. So, he didn’t know where Sanderson was from where he’d been left. Even if he had known, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back there anyway. Everyone in town would know what had happened to him and why. And from experience, he knew that most people would probably take the asshole’s side and assume that Nathan had deserved it. As a result, Nathan knew that he wouldn’t be able to get help or sympathy from any of the townsfolk.
He had been walking for about an hour when he came across the dog. It was lying at the side of the road, and when Nathan first saw it, it just looked like it was sleeping. When he got closer, however, he could see that the dog had blood coming from its mouth and its head had a big dent like someone had taken a hammer to it. All things considered, it wasn’t really in bad shape for roadkill, but, nonetheless, the dog was definitely dead.
Nathan lit another cigarette while he walked past. The smoke made him feel better, and killed the odour that he imagined wafting around the dog. Of course, there wasn’t any odour. The dog had only just been killed, and so it hadn’t a chance to start smelling bad yet. Nathan imagined that dead things stunk, however, so in his head, the dog was already smelling.
He walked on past it. He had gone another fifty feet or so, before he sat down to rest. Nathan had already been planning to sit down, but when he saw the dog by the side of the road, he decided that he would get past it before he sat down.
As he sat, he saw in the distance across one of the fields that there was a farm house. He imagined the dog must have come from the house. It wasn’t just a coyote or a fox that had wandered onto the road. It was someone’s dog that had gotten loose. He looked back at the mass lying on the asphalt. He finished his cigarette and stood up again. He took a couple of steps down the road, then shaking his head at himself, he turned around and headed back.
When he returned to it, he shuddered a little and then picked it up. He looked toward the farm house again, thinking he should take it back to them. However, he wasn’t even sure that it was the right place. Even if it was, he wasn’t sure that anyone would want to know about it. It might be better if the dog just gotten “lost,” rather than forcing them to deal with the corpse.
Then he looked at the road ahead of him, and realized that, no matter what, he wouldn’t be able to carry the dog with him while he walked. Especially if he was going to try to catch a ride. No one in their right mind would pick him up while he was covered in blood and carrying a dead animal. So, he knew that he’d have to either take it to the farm or just leave it at the side of the road. He had already decided that he couldn’t just leave the thing. In his head, there were little kids waiting for their dog to come home. He knew that that was a ridiculous, maudlin, Norman Rockwell invention, but he couldn’t shake it, so he started walking toward the distant farm house.
He walked up the highway a little bit and then went down a dirt road that looked like it was heading toward the house. The road hadn’t been used or maintained anytime recently. The grass was starting to encroach on it from the sides, as well as sprouting from the middle of the road. Eventually, it was just two well worn ruts, flanked by grass on both sides. Nathan knew that the condition of the road didn’t bode well for the house itself, but he kept going in any case.
After walking from the highway for an hour, he arrived at the house. He was actually surprised that he was able to get to it so quickly. From the highway, it had looked very distant, and he had expected that it might take several hours to get to it.
From close up, he could see that the house was only in slightly better condition than the road. There wasn’t anything actually growing on it, but the siding was just grey paint. There were a few flakes of paint left, but not many. One of the windows on the ground floor was broken. Nathan had very slim hopes that anyone would answer him, but he called out anyway. As he expected, no one answered.
The dog was very heavy, and he was grateful to put it down on the front porch. When he had let go of it, he saw that it had made more of a mess of his shirt than he’d even thought it would. He looked like he’d not only killed the animal, but then taken a bath in the blood.
The front door was kind of open, so he went inside the house, and called again. Again, there was no answer. Whoever had abandoned the house, they had at least had time to prepare. There was still some furniture around, but the cupboards in the kitchen were bare. There were four chairs around a wooden table. The living room was completely empty except for a full-length mirror leaning against a wall.
Nathan went up the flight of stairs that ran between the kitchen and the living room. There were two more bedrooms upstairs, one facing east and the other west. The eastern bedroom was empty, but in the west bedroom there was a bundle of sheets and blankets that had been left on the floor. The rooms had slanted ceilings and each had a window. From the window in the western room, Nathan was able to peer out and see the mountains rising from the yellow haze of the prairies.
He could also see where the dog was lying on the porch. He went back downstairs and pulled off his shirt while he did so. It was a warm enough day and while he still had blood stuck to him, it felt a great deal better than the blood-soaked shirt had felt against his skin. When he got outside again, he looked at the dog, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Actually, he was ready to just leave it there, but he knew that he couldn’t head back to the highway until he’d gotten a shower.
There was another small shack about a hundred yards from the house. It hadn’t been visible from the highway, but now that Nathan was close he could see it mouldering in the field behind the house. It didn’t even look safe, and the roof was starting to collapse. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get inside it, but he headed toward it anyway.
Once he got there, he saw that the door had been chained shut, but left unlocked when the previous owners had left. There was a rusty chain hanging from a hook on one of the large double doors on the front of the building. The front was still standing and he was able to swing the door open and look inside. One corner of the shed had completely collapsed. There was some rusty equipment peaking out from under a jumble of timber. A few weeds were starting to grow on the timbers where some dirt had collected.
The rest of the shed seemed to be in better shape. Well, a little better in any case. There were some more rusty tools hanging on the walls. Nathan had no idea what they might have been used for at one time, but he saw that there was also a shovel leaning in the corner nearest the door. Finally, he knew what he should do with the dog.
He picked up the shovel and went back to the house. He dug a shallow hole in front of the house. The soil was loose and fairly sandy, so he didn’t have to work very hard. Nonetheless, he was sweating a little bit before he decided to stop. Once he had dug down about a foot, he went back to where the dead dog was still lying on the porch. The idea of holding a corpse against his bare skin was too much for him, so he didn’t want to pick it up again. So, he dragged the dog over off the porch and over to his hole, instead.
He laid it inside, and started piling dirt on it. When he was done, there was a mound. The hole had been shallow enough that he’d had some trouble making sure that all of the dog was in it. But with a little extra work, he was able to make sure that everything furry was covered up.
Once the dog had been safely buried, Nathan wiped his brow and sat down on the stairs from the front porch of the house. He lit a cigarette and gazed contentedly back to where the highway ran. It was starting to get dark, so he guessed that it must be getting late in the day. He wished he had a beer or something to drink, so he lay back on the porch, carefully avoiding the spot where the dog had been lying. Without any paint left on it, the wood was actually quite smooth and silky feeling. Soon he butted the cigarette out in the dust, lay back and fell asleep.
When he woke up, it was quite dark and it was raining very hard. At first he was irritated, since his legs were getting quite wet. He wasn’t sure how he’d managed to sleep through the rain so effectively. However, after he’d had a chance to wake up, he realized that it was great good luck. He stripped down, tucked his cigarettes away in a dry corner, and then lay his clothes on a part of the porch that was getting pounded with rain. The roof had broken at that spot, so there was an area where the water could come down freely.
Once his clothes were arranged, he moved off the porch altogether so that he could wash himself in the rain. Even after he’d gotten all the blood off, he stood under the downpour and the cold water pouring over him made him feel refreshed.
Though he would have liked to keep standing in the rain, he soon started getting chilled. He went inside and up the stairs to the west bedroom. He grabbed one of the dusty blankets and dried himself with it. Then he took some of the other sheets and blankets in the pile and wrapped them around himself to stay warm. He lay back again, comforted by the sound of the rain, but also hoping that the roof wouldn’t start leaking on him. He soon fell asleep again.
He woke up to a bright sun and kept the blankets wrapped around him. By that time, of course, he was feeling both very hungry and thirsty. He went downstairs and took some more swallows from the can. While he was out on the porch, he inspected his clothes. They were soaking wet, of course, but the blood stains had turned pink, at least. They were still fairly extensive, but he felt like he still had a better chance than if they’d been fresh blood stains. And he knew that if he was actually wearing them, the clothes would dry out quickly. So, he dropped his blankets, and struggled back into his wet clothes.
He didn’t know where the impulse came from, but he felt that he should return the blankets to the upstairs bedroom. He knew that no one could possibly care, but he took the blankets back up the stairs and dropped them in their pile by the window where he’d found them. He peered out the window and far in the distance, he could see the mountains. His clothes were wet, but clean, and though he was terribly hungry he felt good. He still had a few cigarettes left, so he lit one as he stood looking out the window. He wasn’t sure that he should feel happy, but he did.