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Max would have to clean up the spilled garbage later. Two cans worth, scattered behind his house, and this fucking dog in the middle of it, gnawing on a pork chop bone. The beast so intent on its snack that it didn’t even notice his approach. He’d grabbed the dog by the collar and pulled him yelping into the cab of his pickup. Yes, he would clean this later, but he needed to take care of the troublemaker first.
It only took a few minutes to put what he needed in the truck’s bed, and then he opened the driver’s side door. The dog–a mutt with obvious collie forebears–was whimpering a bit, cowering on the floor as though it knew what he was up to. Max leaned over and stroked the scruff of dog’s neck with his meaty, rough fingers, relaxing the animal. He turned the key and felt the old truck sputter a bit before the engine caught. That would have to be fixed, too, but not today,
Bradleysburg sat in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, so small that calling it a village was an exaggeration. Less than four hundred people lived along the small Main Street inside the tiny boundaries of the borough. Another thousand or so–including Max Cassidy–resided in Daniel Webster Township, which surrounded the borough proper and still had Bradleyburg mailing addresses. The citizens were descended from farmers–mostly German–but few still tilled the soil for a living. Instead, they worked service jobs, collected government checks, or both. The few homes Max passed were aged double-wide trailers with built-on additions that didn’t match. The road below him was gravel.
He drove until he came to a large field that belonged to a church camp run by the local Church of God district. He pulled into a small gravel berm next to the camp’s mailbox.
It was late August, and there were no campers this time of year, although the property was so large that none of them would have been near this particular spot anyway. Old Man Neville, who had been the camp’s caretaker since well before Max had been a camper two decades ago, wasn’t around. No one was. One of the beauties of rural living, Max decided, was being alone all the time. He couldn’t imagine life in a city, in some townhouse that shared a wall so thin the neighbors could hear you flush the toilet.
He pulled a soft-pack of Marlboro Reds out of the pocket of his flannel shirt and tapped a cigarette into his palm. He rolled his window down and lit the cigarette with a plastic Bic lighter. Dry, lightly brown grass rose waist high in the field. It would be time to make hay soon.
The dog jumped up on the truck’s faux-leather bench seat, tongue hanging out, mouth in that curious canine approximation of a smile. Max scratched the dog behind the ears; the dog licked his palm. Out of curiosity, he checked the animal’s tag.
“Hulk, huh?,” he asked the dog. “That’s a shitty name. You’re anything but incredible, you stupid fucking twat.” As he spoke, his voice softened as if he were addressing a giggling baby. His lips parted in a smile, his teeth a dingier yellow that the mutt’s.
From the glove box, he pulled a pack of beef jerky. It was half-empty, the pieces of dried and salted meat hardened by time. Max dumped the bag’s contents onto the floor of the passenger side and watched as the dog devoured the scraps.
When the food was gone, he took hold of Hulk’s collar and led him gently out of the cab. The dog did not need much convincing, and he sat at Max’s feet, waiting for more food. Max knew the animal’s owners a little, but not enough to have ever seen their pet before. From the way the dog behaved, it seemed reasonable to conclude that they were not feeding him often enough.
“I don’t have anything else for you,” he said. The dog waited anyway, grinning like a fool. Max rubbed under Hulk’s chin and the removed his collar. The dog laid on his back, offering his belly to the man.
The red plastic can in the pickup bed held about two gallons of gas. Enough. He began pouring it onto the dog, who scrambled to his feet and tried to avoid getting wet, first by walking in a small circle, and then by sprinting into the field, leaving a trail of fuel dripping from his coat. He ran about twenty feet and then shook himself and rolled around trying to get dry.
Max put the gas can back in the truck and then dropped the smoldering butt of his cigarette where the dog had just been. He watched the flames run into the field, where they soon engulfed the dog, who began to run wildly through the grass. Soon, several different patches began to burn.
The dog’s collar went into his glove box, another thing to take care of later. Not now. He drove away with the window still down, the better to hear Hulk’s last, pained howls.