The Sergeant

three medals in glass enclosure
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

The sergeant took a breath, mucus rattling through his broad chest, and looked at his back lawn. The grass was too long. The trees caught most of the morning light, and a walnut from one of them fell onto the Gambrel roof of his shed, clattering down the sides and glazing off the indented steel into the yard.

Squinting, he nearly missed it — through his cataracts, it was just a brown blur, but he recognized it immediately. 

Groundhog. The same one that had taunted him all summer as he made his morning rounds. 

The groundhogs came every year to dig their burrows and ruin his perfect yard. They were cowards, content to live in their trenches, peeking their heads out tentatively and clucking their big teeth. He had killed many of them over the years, and for the most part, they had learned to stay away. But each summer, at least one of the big ones would take a chance; the yard was too perfect to be ignored entirely.

In his younger days, he would follow the big groundhog and root it out from under the shed at the back of the yard. That was where it expected to live — where they all had lived — and that’s where it was heading now. 

He walked out in the yard, his joints cracking, and inspected the hole under the shed where the brown blur had disappeared. Too late now. Even if he managed to dig it out, it had likely built a half-dozen escape routes. Cowards can be resourceful.

When the Sergeant first came to the house, he had destroyed a half-dozen of the things in one month.

He had not caught a single one this year. Part of it was his hips, which seemed to give out from under him at random — though they usually waited until he was having an especially good day otherwise — but part of it was because he didn’t care as much as once did. 

When he first came to the house, the backyard had become his mission. He spent days walking along the fence, back and forth, until the grass became stubborn and refused to grow. He still walked along the fence most mornings, but a few brave blades had begun sprouting up to recover their territory.

When he first came to the house, he would gladly spend hours out here. Now, it was mostly routine. He took less pleasure in it. It was only 9:00, but he was ready to go back to bed.

“Sarge!” He heard Emily’s voice from behind him. “I’ve made breakfast!” 

His face lifted at the sound of her voice. He turned, slowly, and walked to the door. She was waiting for him.

“I’ve made bacon, eggs, and…and toast.” 

Her voice was not right. Something had changed. He looked at her quizzically, but remained quiet. She’d prepared a plate for him, and he began eating, expecting that she would keep talking. She always did.

But today, she was quiet for a long time.

“We have a visitor,” she said eventually, gently. 

He stopped eating. He blinked his eyes, tried to focus, but Emily remained a white-and-pink blur. It was then that he noticed another white-and-pink blur sitting in the living room. 

Who is sitting on my couch?

“This is Thomas. He’s a vet. He wants to help you.”

This was not on the schedule for today. The sergeant growled his disapproval, then coughed, then focused on Thomas’s figure.

“Sergeant, nice to meet you.” Thomas turned to Emily. “I’m sorry, I’m early. I didn’t mean to interrupt his breakfast.” 

“It’s okay, he doesn’t eat much anyway.” She turned to the sergeant. “Sarge, let’s go sit on the couch.”

The sergeant did not budge.

He stared at the interloper, trying to make out the features of his face.

 “Come on,” Emily insisted. The sergeant grumbled and followed her. They sat across from Thomas, who moved over to them. He had something in his hand.

“Are you ready?” Thomas said. He was talking to Emily. Confused, the sergeant looked at her; her blurred head nodded. 

“Okay. Remember, you don’t have to be here if it’s too difficult.”

“Yes, I do,” she said. She was crying. The sergeant moved to comfort her, to ask her what was happening, but he felt a sudden sting in his leg. He wheeled towards Thomas, who was extracting a needle from the sergeant’s thigh. 

Suddenly, Emily’s hands were around his neck, hugging him. She stroked his head, and he felt a warmth moving up his body. He was tired.

He turned to Emily; she was close enough that he could make out her eyes. Her mouth. Her tears.

He licked one off of her face, and she laughed. 

He would take his nap now. Right here, right in front of damned Thomas and his needles. 

“We’ll wait until he’s asleep. He won’t feel the second one. He’s feeling tired now, and he’ll sink into a deep nap — like that feeling when you can’t keep your eyes open. He’ll…”

Thomas kept talking, and the sergeant growled a bit. Emily kept stroking his fur, and he tried to stay awake to comfort her.

The warmth kept spreading, and he closed his eyes. His leg kicked, and he had a brief but satisfying dream. 

His eyes were clear. The grass had been trimmed. He was outside on the first day of spring. His body remained old, but his joints flexed easily without pain. 

The groundhog sat unaware in front of him, a good 20 yards from its burrow. It would be close, but Sarge believed that he could close the distance. He moved quickly towards the coward, his paws flexing against the dirt. 

The groundhog heard him and broke for its home under the shed. Sarge exploded into a sprint. As the rodent hurdled towards its burrow, Sarge could feel its desperation, and he threw himself towards it, his mouth open wide.

– To King, Simon, and other dogs who lived in yards.

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