California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch
2016 Short, Short Story Writing Contest
by Karen Holladay Durham
In the forests of Northern California, between narrow strips of uncut woods on a wide curve in the road, a dead raccoon ripens in the morning sun, releasing a rainbow of odors. Penelope sits on the dirt verge. When she was a pup she was tossed into a high creek to drown, but she was plucked from the water by a skinny woman, an orphan, who could barely care for herself, let alone her young brother.
Passing cars stir a soup of dust, cellophane cigarette wrappers, scraps of paper. Bits of rock and roadway shoot from under spinning tires, peppering Penelope. The shifting breeze is cool, almost cold.
Before dawn Penelope had walked with her mistress three miles to reach the highway. There, her owner had told her, “Stay!” and had gotten into a car alone because the man would take her, but not the dog, nearly all the way to where she needed to go.
In the county jail miles away, a young man not quite finished being a boy is combing his hair nervously, preparing to stand in front of a judge. The dog’s owner had promised their mother to keep him safe.
The raccoon is already host to a party of ants and flies, who had arrived at dawn. A crow floats down, her long toes testing the pavement gingerly. She circles, head tilted; samples an eye; digs in with gusto. Another crow arrives and then the vulture, to whom the crows noisily yield.
The boy’s first bad choice had been to smoke a joint with his girlfriend. “Just this once,” he had said to his sister, who believed him.
Penelope shifts on the hard ground and begins to pant. A flesh colored Datsun drifts off the pavement and the birds flutter away like kites. Penelope springs up as the car slides past her. Warily she sits back down. Warily the crows return.
The boy’s next bad choice was to steal his sister’s savings and their mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. “Never again,” he had said to his sister. She wanted to believe him.
The vultures return to take their share of the raccoon. The crows pull frantically to free strings of flesh and carry them off to a safe distance. Another car drives by, then a truck. Penelope sits nervously, ready to jump again. Penelope in Greek myth is the godly embodiment of faithfulness.
The boy’s final bad choice was to rob a gas station to pay his dealer. “Help me!”he had said. His sister had been unable to deny his error, even to herself. He went to jail.
Penelope lies down, finally, in the dust. The creek near the road calls, but she won’t move. She drifts off to sleep to dream of chasing a rabbit, of drinking cool water from her bucket, of lying beside her mistress in front of the fire in the cool of evening. The sun shines on her skin through her thinning leonine coat. She looks as dead as the raccoon.
The boy’s pride made him resist, at first, having his big sister, “save,” him again. But as the date of his hearing approached, pride turned to shame in the part of him that was a man.
Shadows slip across the road. The raccoon is no longer an animal as bits and chunks are pulled and dragged by birds, and flattened by cars. Tomorrow, or next week, it will be left entirely to the ants and beetles; nature will take its course. Penelope wakes and rests her head on her paws, as patient as her namesake.
The dog’s owner promised the judge to take her brother into her home and hold him to his promises. She can only pray both the judge and her brother believe her.
From around the wide curve comes another truck. It slows as it passes the dozing dog; a bearded driver looks out the window and pulls onto a turnout; a cloud of detritus blossoms. The truck idles; shoes crunch the gravel. Someone emerges from the brown fog. Hackles raised, the dog stiffens. Sniffs.
Then she’s up, feet scrambling. She charges, flat to the ground, ears pinned in joy. She squirms, pushes deeper into the crouched embrace. Her owner’s breath is hot in Penelope’s ears. She doesn’t understand the stream of words and sobs, but feels the joy, and throws herself higher onto her mistress, knocks her to the ground, helps her celebrate.