First published in Muscadine Lines (2011) - read editor interview
I hadn't smiled since Soldier chased a squirrel into the street and was killed by a car. He was six. I was twelve. Mom told me it was her fault for leaving the gate open.
She snatched a coin from behind my ear and pulled a streamer from her mouth, like she did after Dad's funeral, to cheer me up. The first time I was surprised, but her tricks didn't make me smile--not a real smile, anyway.
Dad worked with dogs in his job. When he told me he was going to Iraq, I asked if I could have a dog. Mom wasn't keen on the idea, but I promised I'd take care of it. Dad and I went to the pound and found a small mutt he thought I could handle. I named him Soldier. He didn't respond to any commands, so Dad showed me how to train Soldier to sit and stay and walk on a leash. It was the last thing the three of us did together, except for attending Dad's funeral. He'd been in Iraq for eight months. Soldier sat next to me, military proud, his tongue hanging out in salute to the fallen, as they handed the flag to my mom. It was the first time I'd seen her cry.
The funeral was six months ago, and I never thought Mom might still be sad, until I heard her crying in her room last night. I realized then she needed someone to help her, too. I didn't know the kind of magic she did, but I had one of my own tricks to show her, one I hadn't performed since Dad came home in the box with a flag on it. I'd been thinking too much about myself and Dad and Soldier to be of any help to Mom. But I changed that a few minutes ago when I walked into the kitchen, gave her a big hug, and told her I loved her. She hugged me back, and I felt her heart beating. I looked out the window into the backyard and saw Dad, in his uniform, smiling, and Soldier saluting us with his tongue. I felt my face grow a real smile, and when I looked up, Mom was smiling, too.