I couldn’t make my piece of shit car go any faster. Not if I wanted to avoid any chance of getting pulled over. But the sound of my son crying in the back seat crushed my heart into dust.
We’d already lost too much in our lives. Even though I knew it wouldn’t make a difference, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I wouldn’t do everything possible to make this hurt less.
“I’m so sorry, Nox,” I whispered, wishing more than anything that I could take away the pain breaking through his quiet grief.
“She’s not breathing anymore,” he sobbed.
I pressed my foot on the gas as every single fuck I had left went flying out the window. My son, the tiny reincarnation of his father, had never cried before until now. From the very first day I brought him home, he’d never cried. The sound drove a dagger through whatever remained of my heart.
“We’re almost there, Nox.” I spoke a little louder, trying to speak over the pressure growing in my chest and throat. “Maybe they can do something for her.” I choked on the rest of my words. Tears pooled in my eyes and made it hard to see, let alone breathe.
I lied. One thing I swore that I’d never do to my son. But I didn’t have any fucking clue what to do except lie. Lie, and speed through Birch in the middle of the night, determined to get to the emergency vet as quickly as I could. I had to get there, even if my son’s best friend was already dead.
I should have known that if something could go wrong, it would. Especially when the loud whoop sounded from behind me. Wiping my eyes, I glanced into the rearview mirror where I saw flashing blue and red lights behind me, shining in the darkness.
“Fuck,” I muttered. Still, I pulled over to the side of the road and put both hands on the wheel after I rolled down the window, impatiently waiting for the officer to get out of his car.
The seconds ticked by, and the sound of Nox crying in the back seat grew louder.
“Mom,” he cried out suddenly. “You need to hurry. I don’t think she’s going to last.” He whimpered, and I couldn’t stop myself from turning around to face him right as a light shone in the vehicle. I did make sure to keep my hands on the wheel, though. With an uncle in law enforcement, I knew better than to do anything that would constitute a threat to a cop.
“Please, baby. Just give me a second.”
“Ma’am.” That fucking voice. Of course, it would have to be Remy Townsend who pulled me over. But I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of me saying his name.
Not after everything.
“I’m so sorry, Officer.” I tried hard to stop the tears, but I couldn’t. Not only was I losing my dog, but Remy was watching it happen and I couldn’t let him see me cry. “Someone hit my son’s dog, and I’m trying to get him to the emergency vet.” My lower lip trembled, breaking the confidence that I’d had only a moment before.
Thankfully, Remy didn’t seem to notice that it was me. Or that I had my heart in my tear-filled eyes. He clicked off his light. I saw him turn back to his cruiser before dropping the tenor in his voice and putting his hand on the roof of my car.
“Ma’am. I’m going to follow you to the vet. You’re headed to Brewer, right?” His voice still cut to my core, even twenty years after we’d first met. Only now, instead of trust and love, he filled me with anger and hate.
“O-okay.” Keep it short, Parker. He doesn’t know it’s you.
I squeezed the steering wheel and forced myself to take a deep breath.
It’ll be okay.
Nox’s whimper from the back seat called out my internal ramblings as a lie, but I had to do something to calm my already frazzled nerves.
“Good.” He kept talking like he wasn’t the reason I was so uncomfortable. “Go ahead and pull ahead. Don’t be alarmed. Once you get started, I’ll pull out behind you with my lights flashing. Then, I’ll just follow at a safe distance.” He was gone in the next instant, and I couldn’t even ask why he’d changed his mind from following us to leading us to the vet.
Whatever the case was, I’d take it. With a cop leading the way, I wouldn’t have to slow down.
“Hold on, Nox. The officer is gonna lead the way.”
Nox sniffled, and the unmistakable sound of him wiping his nose on his sleeve filled the air between us. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell him to use the tissues that I knew hung behind my seat. He was losing his best friend; I wouldn’t be doing or saying anything to make that harder for him.
“I’m so sorry, Nox.”
I followed Remy. Even though it was fruitless. Even though I knew there wasn’t anything the vet could do. I still followed his flashing lights through Birch and up into Brewer. Even when I pulled into the parking lot of the vet in the middle of the night, and should have hoped that they could miraculously save Boo, I couldn’t.
The flashing lights stopped, and Remy was gone after I carried Boo into the vet a few minutes later with Nox at my side.
Boo, the massive Newfie that my husband bought me before his deployment six years ago, was dead. The only thing in my life that I had left of Danny, besides Nox. Gone. All because some idiot hit him on our private road.
“Fuck.” We were waiting in the brightly lit lobby ten minutes later, just for confirmation.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hayes,” the vet tech said, a solemn-eyed older woman named Pam. “Dr. Shu said there’s nothing she could do for Boo.”
Nox, whose shoulders had been tense as he sat next to me, broke. He threw himself into my arms, crying.
“I’m so sorry, baby.” I rubbed his back, not bothering to keep my tears at bay. “I’m so sorry.”
“We can make arrangements and have Boo cremated for you, if you’d like.”
Nox cried even harder, and I nodded over his head at the woman who was just doing her job. It wasn’t her fault that our puppy had died.
“Let’s go home, Nox.”
He shook his head against my chest. I swear, whatever I thought had died inside hadn’t really died. Not until that very second. Not until everything in my child refused to leave his dead friend.
“I have to say goodbye,” he said with the maturity of a child much older than his five years old. “I have to.”
His voice took on a determined edge that I hadn’t heard before. I couldn’t stop him from saying goodbye, though, not when it meant that he would get to see Boo one more time.
Pam smiled gently down at me. “Come on, Nox.” She held out her hand and waited for Nox to look at her. “I’ll take you to him. And you can take as long as you want to say goodbye. Do you want to come with us, Mrs. Hayes?”
No. I absolutely did not want to. But I’d do it anyway. Nox needed me, and I had to do it. I had to give my son that.
I got up and Nox came with me, reaching not only for my hand, but for Pam’s as well. That’s how we walked down the pristine halls of the animal hospital. Two women, holding the hands of a boy who sniffled and tried to hide his anguish. And if we pretended not to hear his quiet sounds, that was perfectly fine.
Boo sat on an examination table, no longer wrapped in the blanket I’d grabbed from the back of the couch. Instead, he was lying there like he was asleep. If he weren’t covered in blood, sticking to his long black coat, I’d expect him to open one eye at me and roll onto his back for belly rubs at any second. Only Boo wasn’t going to roll over for me, never again.
Inadvertently, I squeezed Nox’s hand, and then he let go, dropping my hand.
The first step he took toward Boo broke Pam, too. She sniffled next to me as Nox took step after step across the room. Five steps. Five excruciating steps, then he stood next to Boo, with his back to me. His blond hair tousled and unkempt, Nox pressed his face to Boo’s, and there was nothing to be done for me or for Pam at that point. She cried with me, and we both watched as Nox whispered something unintelligible to Boo before he turned back to me with red-rimmed eyes.
“Boo says that he wants to be buried with Daddy.”
I blew out a deep breath, wondering when my life would ever get any easier. Since the tears currently burning my eyes and falling unchecked to the floor weren’t doing me any favors.
I wiped them on the back of my sleeve, uncaring about the way I looked.
“We can do that, when we get him back from the vet.” I glanced at Pam, who was busy wiping her own tears, too. “As soon as we get him back, we’ll go bury him with Daddy.”
The door behind us opened, and Dr. Shu came in with a beleaguered sigh.
“Pam, can you let them know that it’ll be about a week? Oh, Parker. I didn’t realize P. Hayes was you.”
Dana Shu, one of my friends from high school, looked at me with a sad expression on her face.
“Yeah,” I told her with a sniffle. “Thanks, Dana. For helping with Boo.”
“Oh, no.” Her eyes darted to the table, and then to Nox, before settling back on me. “This isn’t the dog that Danny—“
I cut her off with a nod. “Yeah.” I was starting to sound like a broken record.
“I’m so sorry, Parker.” Dana clutched the clipboard in front of her, like a lifeline for a drowning woman. “I’m so sorry. I’ll get Boo back to you as soon as possible.”
Somehow I managed to nod, and that was it before I had to go.
Catching up with an old friend over the lifeless body of my dog wasn’t how I wanted to spend my night. Not in the slightest.
“Can I have his collar?” Nox’s question threw me off guard. I looked not at Dana, but at Pam, who’d fast earned every ounce of respect that I had left.
“Yes, sweetie,” she answered quietly. “Let me get that washed off for you. Why don’t you go with your mom out to the waiting room and I’ll bring it right out.”
“Make sure it’s his,” Nox ordered her suddenly. “It’s important that I have his, so I can hang it with my Daddy’s dog tags.”
My son was the only person in the entire world that could gut me with one sentence. Hell, the kid could do it with a single word. But him wanting to hang Boo’s collar with Danny’s dog tags on our living room wall was something I hadn’t even thought of.
“You know,” I said when we were sitting back in the waiting room doing just that … waiting for Boo’s collar. “You’re the smartest kid that I’ve ever met in my entire life. Boo will be able to watch over us, with his collar right there.”
Nox nodded solemnly. “Just like Daddy does. And we can say good night to him just like we do for Daddy too.”
Every night before bed, I let Nox tell his father how his day was. What he did, and what he wanted to happen the next day. I never listened to the conversation, not that I didn’t want to hear, but because that was Nox’s time. His only chance to know his father was through other people’s memories and those blackened metal dog tags. The tags I’d scrubbed over and over again to try to clean them, but couldn’t. The only piece of Danny they’d given back to me, besides the folded flag that sat in a frame on my wall. I didn’t need them for myself, but for the son that he never got a chance to know.
When I finally got Nox into bed it was well after three in the morning, and I knew we wouldn’t be going to sleep. Nor would I be going to work, either. Instead, I stared at the collar, which we’d immediately hung next to Danny’s dog tags, and I cried until there was nothing left.
Just like I’d done the night after Danny’s funeral.
“Is this ever going to get easier?”
Five years later, and I still knew the answer was no.