The Exterminator

    “I killed you again!” Dwayne crowed. “The Exterminator shows no mercy.”

     “I get sick of being Ratface or Cockroach King all the time,” Felix responded, tossing

aside the joystick.

     “Oh, well,” Dwayne shrugged.

     “You should let me be Exterminator sometimes!” Felix declared abruptly.

     “It’s my game,” Dwayne countered.

     “But, I’m your best friend, man” Felix insisted, flashing him his patented, 32 carat smile.

     “You never let me really, truly play with Casey. You always say, ‘He’s my dog, Dwayne.’”

     “Well, you always say, ‘It’s my game! “ Felix shouted triumphantly, certain he had somehow trumped his opponent.

     “So, we’re both acting selfishly. What are we going to do about it?” Dwayne said calmly, in that weird, maddeningly soothing, business guy’s voice he sometimes used.

     “Okay, okay, okay. I’ll let you really, truly play with Casey if I can be Exterminator sometimes,” Felix replied, picking up the joystick.

     “Not so fast, best,” Dwayne said smugly, taking the joystick away from him. “Let’s go play with Casey first.”

     “Fine with me,” Felix snapped, standing quickly and marching toward the door. Dwayne followed eagerly. By the time Dwayne had locked his front door behind him, Felix was down the walkway and stalking toward his house two blocks away. Dwayne hurried to catch up.

     “Casey is so classic,” Dwayne gushed as he often did. “Remember that time he took us to the hurt bird?”

     “Yup,” Felix answered. Casey was only a puppy when he discovered the injured wren in the field behind Felix’s house. He barked and yapped and pulled at the boys’ jeans until they followed him to the bird, which they carefully placed in a shoe box and took to the vet. Dr. Meyer set the wren’s dislocated wing and a month later Felix, Casey, and Dwayne set the bird free. Casey did a back flip when the wren flew away. It was the only time he ever did it and the boys laughed until they cried. They never got sick of reminiscing about it.

     As Dwayne blathered on about how he would love to have a Jack Russell terrier, but only if he was classic like Casey, Felix felt guilty. He knew his friend desperately wanted a dog of his own, but his mother was allergic to animal dander. He knew he shouldn’t be so selfish about Casey, but the dog was the only thing he had that Dwayne envied. Dwayne’s parents were loaded, so he always had the latest games and gadgets and software and stuff.

     When they got to Felix’s, they let themselves in through the back door. Casey came tearing through the dining room into the kitchen. As usual, he lost his footing on the slick linoleum and unceremoniously skidded across the floor, a blur of fur and clicking toenails, before crashing into his master’s shins. The boys knelt as he righted himself and got to work. He had a lot of face licking to do.

     “Can we take him out to play Frisbee?” Dwayne asked.

     “Ok. He still can’t catch it in midair, though,” Felix responded as they got to their feet. As soon as he opened the door, Casey darted out and down the back steps. The boys followed.

     “I keep telling you, you’re arcing it too high for him. Let me work with him. I bet I can get him to do it.”

     “Casey, get the Frisbee,” Felix said. Casey’s ears perked up and he dashed over to the lemon tree. He came trotting back with the battered, plastic disc in his teeth. Felix bent at the waist to take it from him as the Jack Russell terrier turned his head at the last moment and the boy’s fingers closed on air.  He sat down in front of Dwayne, wagging his tail and daring him to grab the Frisbee.  When the boy reached out, the dog dropped the toy and laid down, covering it with his body.

     Felix snuck around to Casey’s side while his attention was focused on Dwayne and snatched the Frisbee.  The dog sprang to his feet, his eyes fixed on the disk.  As Felix wound up to throw it, Dwayne reached out one hand, palm up.

     “The whole point of this was that you were gonna let me really, truly play with Casey.”

     “I will.  Chill, man,” Felix replied.  Casey barked, anxious for his master to start the game.  The boys stared at each other.  Finally, Felix handed the Frisbee to Dwayne, who wasted no time and sent it sailing across the lawn.  Casey retrieved it and brought it back.  Dwayne grabbed it and after a brief tug of war and some ferocious growling, the dog released it.

     “Watch this,” Dwayne told Felix, with a mock throw that sent Casey scrambling partway across the lawn.  The dog turned, realizing he had been tricked, and barked.  Dwayne flicked his wrist and sent the Frisbee flying, close to the ground.  As it passed by Casey, the dog hunkered down and leaped, catching the disk in his teeth.

     “Score!” Dwayne chortled, holding his hand up for high-five.  Felix’s hands were clenched into fists at his sides.  “I told you, you have to throw low.”

     “Whatever,” Felix seethed.  “Let’s go play Exterminator now.”

     “No way, man.  Me and Casey are just getting warmed up,” Dwayne replied as the dog returned and dropped the Frisbee at his feet.  “Just let us play for a little while, okay?”

     “Fine.” It wasn’t fine, though. Felix had tried to teach the Jack Russell terrier to catch the Frisbee hundreds of times. Then Dwayne came along and got him to do it on the second throw.

     “Go ahead and play. I’ll be back in a minute.”

     Dwayne grinned, picked up the toy and tossed it as his friend bounded up the steps and went into the house. Dwayne had the Exterminator and now he had the fact that he was the one who taught Casey to catch the Frisbee. There was only one other thing that Felix had that Dwayne thought was really cool and he decided it was time to show it off a little.

     After checking to make sure that his dad was still napping in the family room, Felix snuck into his dad’s office and quietly shut the door.   He kneeled in front of the safe and carefully turned the knob.  16-right, 20-left, 9-right.  His dad thought he was clever; taping the little piece of paper from the fortune cookie to his computer monitor.  He had set up the combination on the safe using three of the lucky numbers on the back of the fortune.  Felix had figured it out a few months ago and had opened the safe and handled its contents several times while his dad napped.  However, he had never shared his secret knowledge with Dwayne.  Until today.

     He pulled his dad’s gun out of the safe, stuck it in his back pocket and stealthily made his way back outside and rejoined his friends. Casey was just trotting back with the Frisbee, ready for more.

     “He caught it four times, so far,” Dwayne boasted.

     “Great,” Felix grinned. “I wanna show you something.”

     “Watch,” Dwayne replied. He took the plastic disk from the dog and sent it sailing. Casey bounded after it, but didn’t catch it that time.

     “Check it out, man,” Felix went on, pulling the gun from his pocket and holding it out. The look on his friend’s face was priceless.

     “Wow,” Dwayne breathed, reaching for the weapon.

     “Don’t touch it,” Felix said.

     “Why? Is it loaded?”

     “Of course not.”

     “So, why can’t I hold it?”

     “Just because.”

     Casey was back at their feet, dancing around in circles, anxious for someone to throw the Frisbee. He yapped.

     “Sshhh,” Felix hissed.  He snatched up the Frisbee with his free hand and threw it as far as he could.  It went all the way into the field beyond the lemon tree and Casey dashed after it, disappearing into the high grass.

     Felix pointed the gun at his friend’s face.

     “What are you doing?” Dwayne asked, a waver in his voice.

     “Shut up, Ratface.”  Felix enjoyed the rush of the Exterminator coursing through his veins.

     “Don’t point that thing at me,” Dwayne sort of squawked. “What if it’s loaded?”

     “It’s not loaded.  On your knees, scum.  Beg the Exterminator for your pathetic life.”

     “It’s not funny, Felix.  Stop it.”

     “The Exterminator shows no mercy,” Felix intoned ominously.  He noticed tiny beads of sweat dotting Dwayne’s forehead.  In his mind, the Exterminator had Ratface backed into a corner, a breath away from death.

     Felix pulled slowly back on the trigger and the hammer moved a fraction of an inch.

     “Cut it out, man!”  Dwayne demanded as he reached forward and pushed Felix’s arm away from his face.

     The gun fired.  It made a huge sound and the recoil took Felix by surprise, knocking him off his feet.  He sat down hard in the grass, staring at the smoking gun in his hand. Dwayne and Felix looked at each other.

     “You said it wasn’t loaded,” Dwayne breathed.

     “I didn’t think it was.”

     Casey whimpered.  The dog lay near the lemon tree, his Frisbee a few inches from his mouth.  Even from thirty feet away, they could see the blood in his fur.

     The back door banged open.  “Was that a gunshot?” Felix turned to see his dad, eyes wide, in his stocking feet, standing on the porch.  The gun slipped from the boy’s hand.

     “What are you doing with that?”  the man snapped.  “You were told never to touch that.”

     “I know,” Felix moaned.  “We have to help Casey, Dad, I think I shot him.”

     The man bounded down the back steps as Felix and Dwayne rushed over to the dog.  Blood dribbled out of a small hole in his upper back.  He lay motionless at their feet.

     “Felix, get his dog bed, a big towel, and my keys.  Put the gun in my top desk drawer while you’re at it and keep your finger off the trigger.  Dwayne, go home.”  Rooted to the spot, the boys just stood there, staring down at Casey.

     “Move!” Felix’s dad shouted.  That broke their paralysis.  Felix darted over, scooped up the still warm gun, and raced into the house as Dwayne slowly made his way through the backyard and down the driveway.  When Felix returned, his dad laid the towel on the grass, carefully lifted Casey onto it, wrapped it around the dog, and gently placed him in his bed.

     The short drive to Dr. Meyer’s office was the longest ten minutes of Felix’s life.  Miss Macaulay, the vet’s pretty young assistant, dropped her smile as they hurried into the office.

     “What’s wrong?”  Her clear, green eyes grew wide with concern as they explained.  Then, she took the dog bed out of the man’s arms and immediately carried Casey through the swinging door next to the desk and called for the vet.

     Nobody else occupied the waiting room at the time.  Felix stood staring out the glass door, watching the traffic while his father absently flipped through a magazine.

     “Is he gonna be okay, Dad?”

     “I don’t know, Felix.”

     “Dad, I know I shouldn’t have…”

     “Not now, Felix.”  The boy shut up.

     A million years later, Dr. Meyer pushed through the swinging door.  He wasn’t wearing his usual friendly face.  Felix and his father approached the vet.

     “Is Casey…you know… alive?” the boy asked, certain the response would be a big, fat no.

     “He’s alive,” the tall, dark haired man answered.  Felix wanted to cheer.  “There are complications, though,” the vet continued.

     “What do you mean?” Felix asked.

     “The bullet is lodged in his upper spine.  He’s paralyzed.  He can breathe on his own, but he can’t move.  I recommend putting him to sleep.  I’m sorry,” Dr. Meyer said.

     “Don’t let him do it.  Please, Dad,” Felix begged.

     “It’s not up to me.  He’s your dog, Felix.  It’s your decision,” his Dad replied.

     Felix looked up at his father in utter shock.  He had never considered the possibility that he would be the one to hold Casey’s fate in his hands.  Stuff like that was always the grownups’ responsibility.

     “I’ll take care of him.  I’ll teach him to walk again,” Felix announced.

     “He won’t ever walk again,” Dr. Meyer said softly.  “He’ll be confined to a bed or a box.  You’ll have to hand feed him.  He can’t run or play anymore.  It’s not much of a life for a dog.”

     Felix looked back and forth from his father to the veterinarian, searching their faces for the answer.  Neither man spoke.  Felix’s stomach flipped over.  He couldn’t tell the vet to go ahead and kill his dog, and yet he couldn’t condemn Casey to a life of lying around.

     “I don’t know what to do!” Felix wailed, his voice cracking and a flood of tears bursting from his eyes.  He sat in one of the plastic chairs that lined the wall, put his hot face in his hands, and cried, gulping air in jagged gasps.

     “Letting Casey go would be the merciful thing,” Dr. Meyer told the boy, laying one of his hands on Felix’s shoulder.

     “The Exterminator shows no mercy,” Felix said miserably.  Dr. Meyer and Felix’s dad exchanged a puzzled look. Then the boy took a deep breath, pinched off his tears, and added, “I’m not the stupid Exterminator.  I’m Casey’s friend.  Let’s do it.”

     Standing and angrily wiping his cheeks with the back of his arm, Felix declared, “I want to be with him.”

     “You and your dad can both be with him, of course.”

     “I can handle it on my own,” Felix said.

     “Are you sure?” his dad asked.

     “Yup,” Felix answered, walking over and pushing his way through the swinging door as the vet followed.

     Halfway down the hall, Dr. Meyer paused.  “I want you to do something for Casey.”

     “Anything!” Felix exploded, certain the vet had thought of a way to fix Casey.

     “I want you to think good thoughts in there,” the doctor responded.  “Dogs  feel. Casey needs to feel love, not grief, got it?”

     Felix’s stomach took a mammoth roller coaster drop.  The vet wasn’t working a miracle; he was giving Felix rules about how to act while he killed his dog.  Nodding his head solemnly, the boy followed Dr. Meyer the rest of the way down the antiseptic scented hallway.

     The vet was probably used to killing things for their own good.  Those were old and sick pets, though.  Not an innocent dog who got shot by the kid he depended on.  When they got to the room at the end of the hall, the door opened and Miss Macaulay stepped out.  “Everything’s ready, doctor.” She gave Felix a quick, tight lipped little smile and stepped past them.

     “Ready?” the vet asked, as he placed his hand on the door handle.

     “Ready,” the boy answered and they walked into the room.  Casey lay on the examination table.  His ears pricked up at the sight of Felix.  Tears began to form again and the boy’s throat closed up.

     “I’m sorry, Casey,” he began.

     “Felix, stop.  What did we just talk about?” Dr. Meyer looked angry.

     “Think good thoughts.  Okay.  Hey, Casey.   How ya doin’, boy?”

     “Better,” the vet said, stepping around the table, next to a tall pole with a plastic bag filled with liquid hanging from it.  A thin tube was connected to the bottom of the bag.

     Felix stepped up and scratched Casey behind the ears.  “Hey, boy. You did really good today.  Dwayne said you caught the Frisbee four times.”

     Dr. Meyer held out a bone shaped dog biscuit.  Felix broke it and fed half to Casey, who licked his palm for any stray crumbs.

     “What is that stuff?” Felix was eyeing the IV bag.

     “It’s a combination of alcohol and barbiturates.  He’ll just go to sleep and then his heart will stop.”

     “It won’t hurt?”

     “The only part that may hurt a little is when I insert the IV, but, maybe not.  He may have lost the feeling in his paws.”

     Felix stroked Casey’s head while the vet washed and dried his hands.  “We’re gonna have fun tomorrow, boy.  We’re going to the beach and you can play Frisbee and bark at crabs all day long, okay?”

     Dr. Meyer released a clamp on the tube and it filled with liquid.  He clamped it shut again and prepared a needle which he inserted into the dog’s front left paw.  Casey whimpered.

     “It’s hurting him,” Felix squeaked.

     “Relax.  He’ll be okay.”  The vet taped down the small plastic projection that now stuck out of the dog’s paw and attached the fluid filled tube to it.  “Why don’t you give him the other half of that cookie now.”

     Felix held it up to Casey’s mouth and fed it to him.  “Pretty good, huh, boy?”  Casey licked his master’s hand as Dr. Meyer released the clamp on the tube again.

     “I love you, buddy,” the boy said as Casey gave his hand one last half-hearted lick and closed his eyes.

     Awhile later, Felix and his dad stood in the backyard under the lemon tree. “You sure you don’t want me to help you, son?”

     “It’s my job.”  Felix began to dig as his father went into the house.  It took him over an hour to get the hole wide and deep enough to fit the dog bed into.  After adding the Frisbee and Casey’s favorite ragged sock toy, he lifted a spadeful of dirt over the hole and let it fall in.

     “Your dad called,” Dwayne said from behind him.  “I wanna help.”

     “Fine with me.”

     “I really loved Casey,” Dwayne told his friend.

     “He loved you, too,” Felix muttered, with a sidelong glance at his best friend.

     “He did?”

     “He knew your name, man.  When I told him Dwayne was coming over, he got all excited,” Felix admitted, scooping another spade of earth into Casey’s grave.

     “Wow,” was all Dwayne could come up with. He dug in his shovel and helped his friend bury his dog.

     “Remember when he did the back flip?” Felix asked.

     “That was classic Casey,” Dwayne replied, on cue.

     “Yup,” Felix gulped.

     By the time they finished, there was a smooth, graceful mound of soil under the lemon tree.  The boys’ faces were smeared with a film of dirt, sweat, and a few tears that fell despite their efforts not to cry in front of each other.  After an awkward backpatting hug, Dwayne left.  Felix declined dinner and crawled into bed.

     The next day, he awoke alone. It was the first morning Casey wasn’t there, smiling and whipsawing his tail, frantically happy to see his master.

     The boy was a zombie all day.

************************************************************************

     ABOUT A YEAR LATER –

      Dwayne parted the curtains a crack and peeked out at the audience.

     “Do you see my dad?” Felix asked.  His Exterminator costume was heavy and he could feel sweat running down his arms and legs.

     “Yeah, he’s in the front row, in between my folks and Dr. Meyer and Miss Macaulay.”

     “You boys ready?” Principal Powers asked.

     “Ready,” Felix replied as he and Dwayne got into position.

     As the lights in the auditorium dimmed, the curtains opened.  Stage lights flicked on and the children cheered.  The Exterminator was, after all, everyone’s favorite game.

By the end of the presentation, after hearing Casey’s story, the audience wasn’t cheering anymore.  The mood in the huge room was somber.

     “Remember, when it comes to reminding kids that guns are not toys…” Felix began, removing his helmet, as Dwayne chimed in.

     “…the Exterminator shows no mercy!” the boys finished together and the lights went out.

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