Ripped Up and Stained
by Austin Conner
My dad drowned in the backyard pool. I saw him in the water, wet black hair draped over his face like a mop soaking up oil, pruned fingers, bleeding scars on his wrist. Huey was howling, his paws splashing against the water, and I pulled him back from the steps. I held him tight, his legs kicking into my chest. I stared at the waters, my dad’s still chest bobbing up and down, until I could finally scream.
My foster family didn’t let me get a new dog. It was a small apartment, and Huey was a huge Mastiff whose heart pounded harder than I could punch. They let me keep a photo of him on my nightstand, one where I was a baby holding onto Huey’s back leg.
I tore up the photo one night. The sound of the paper ripping between my fingers seeped into my throat, filling me up, and I kept tearing. I threw the pieces into the air. Huey’s tongue, face, my smile, all scattered and fragmented, floated in the air. I wanted to hold him again, to feel his heavy paws bounce off my chest as he heard the door creak open.
My foster mom saw the pieces in the trash the next day. She looked at all the pieces, twisted them around as if the light would hit them right, she’d make sense of it. Then she got down on her knees, and whispered, “Are you feeling ok?”
Her eyes lingered on my cheeks. Her lips curled up into a tight grin. She hugged me, her hands rubbing my shoulder. I kept my hands gripped against the mattress and she let go of me. She stepped back, and looked at the blurry photo pieces in her hand. She smiled again, but her eyes were strained and dull. Just like how Dad would smile when he came back from work.
Dad hated his job. He complained every night with Mom, with the same names of coworkers and the same complaints and the same half-closed eyelids and the same long black hair pushed to the side. Huey would run up to him and jump on his lap. He’d try to push Huey off, but then he’d start licking Dad’s face and his hands moved off of Huey’s chest and wrapped the dog in a hug. He’d laugh a couple times, then there’d be a perfect, careful time when everything was silent.
I cried when my foster mom left the room. She had the pieces in her hand and I wanted to call out for her, to let me have them back, but I didn’t. I knew I couldn’t have them back. They were gone, tossed into a black metal dumpster, stained with cola.
I cried without Huey and Dad, without Dad laughing while I played with Huey’s ear. They were never coming back.
Every strained neuron in my head bounced that realization against my skull. I was drowning inside myself, and I was going to drown without them.