The three older boys hanging out behind our school said that they’d killed a rabid dog at the abandoned air force base. “We slashed at him until I got him in the stomach,” one of them said.
“Did he bleed out?” I asked, trying to sound cool.
“No. He didn’t fucking bleed out,” the tallest boy said, tossing a pocketknife between his hands. “I threw my knife and hit him between the eyes.”
I stared at his knife in awe.
“There are tons of rabid dogs there. Twenty bucks to watch us kill one.” He looked at me and then at my friends, Kyle and Thomas. “Or are you a bunch of pussies?”
“I’m no pussy,” Kyle said.
Thomas and I nodded in agreement.
The tallest boy slid the knife into his pocket and then unrolled a pack of cigarettes from his shirtsleeve. He flicked a lighter on in one motion, something I couldn’t do even after practicing all Fourth of July. “Tonight then,” he said, taking a drag.
When I got home, I counted my money slowly. It had taken me all summer to save that much, and I wanted to feel like it belonged to me a little longer. Then I looked through my closet for a pocketknife my grandfather had given me. All afternoon, I threw it at a picture of a menacing dog until it stuck every time. Then, I oiled and sharpened it until it gleamed.
After dinner, Thomas, Kyle, and I rode our bikes to the base. Warm air filled my shirt as I rode, making me feel more muscular than I really was.
When we got there, we climbed the chain length fence, stopping every few seconds to look for a pack of dogs or to hear the sound of distant growls, but we didn’t see or hear anything. As we headed down the alleyway between the cement buildings, glass from broken windows crunched under our feet. When we reached the first intersection, we saw two of the older boys. One of them held a crowbar against his shoulder.
Thomas stopped. “What’s the crowbar for?” He called, his voice cracking.
The boy looked at it and then back at us. “We’re not going to fuck you up, kid.” He laughed.
“Then why do you have it?” I asked.
“To get in the building. Do you think they leave the doors unlocked?”
I looked at Kyle who shrugged. It made sense, but watching the boy swing it from one shoulder to the other made me nervous. I put my hand in my pocket so I could feel my grandfather’s knife.
When we reached them, they opened the door to the base hospital. It had damage around the lock from where they’d pried it open. “You guys took long enough,” the one with the crowbar said. “We started without you.”
“What do you mean?” Kyle asked.
“We cornered one in the examination room.”
We walked down a hallway with peeling beige paint. Pipes running along the walls leaked rust onto the floor. I kept glancing behind me at the boy with the crowbar until the one leading stopped outside a door. He turned and put out his hand. “Money.”
Kyle and Thomas gave it over. My hand was deep in my pocket, holding the knife.
“Money.” The boy with the crowbar said, stepping closer.
I gripped the knife tighter, feeling the grain of the handle against my palm. “No dog. No money.”
I could see Thomas out of my peripheral vision, imploring me to hand over the money, when an animal’s sharp yelp came from the room. Then the tallest boy called from the other side of the door—“Get the fuck in here.”
I expected something snarling, growling, foaming at the mouth, something horrible in need of killing. Instead, there was a metal exam table where the tallest boy stood over a dog. It was on its side with a pillowcase over its head. Its golden fur was mottled with blood, and there was more blood smeared on the boy’s shirt, hands, and pocketknife.
“I can’t do it,” he said. He was pale, his eyes watery. I stepped forward, confused, thinking it had already been done, but then I saw the fur trembling, small cuts along the dog’s stomach, and one long cut along the table’s edge where blood and insides were pooling out.
“This is fucked man,” Kyle chocked. “Let’s bail.”
Thomas grabbed my sleeve, but the dog whined, a sad weak cry, an agonizing plea for help. The pillowcase rose slightly and then fell back. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and shook Thomas off. Their shoes squeaked as they ran back the way we came.
“Fucking end it,” the one with the crowbar said.
“I can’t. I tried.” The tallest boy dropped his knife and rubbed his hands through his hair.
The one with the crowbar shook his head. “This was your scam. You fucking deal with it.” He left and the other boy followed him out, leaving the tallest boy, the dog, and me alone.
When I took the pillowcase off, the tallest boy looked away. The dog wasn’t rabid. It was old and scared. It had a collar—the nametag said Henry. I rubbed his ears, then tried to lift him, but there was no way I could get him to a vet. There was too much blood, and he cried and shook no matter how I tried to carry him. I took my knife out and tried to do it fast, but I didn’t know the best way.
Afterwards, the tallest boy took off his shirt, giving me something to wipe the blood on. It was all the way up my forearms. Then he bent over and started heaving.
I didn’t know if I should reach down and put a hand on his back to comfort him. I only knew that I didn’t want to.