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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
A family in rural North Carolina during the 1960s deals with their child's learning disabilities in a surprising way

Submitted: July 23, 2012

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Submitted: July 23, 2012





He had brought home dead squirrels and raccoons before, but never had he brought home anything like this. Whenever we went out into the woods he’d find something; a mouse, a rat, a dead bird. He would delicately pluck their cold bodies from the dirt and cradle them in his short pudgy arms. There was always something that passed between him and those dead animals that was unexplainable, something beyond our comprehension that created an instant bond. When it first started I would try to stop him, I would bat it out of his hands and he’d cry and cry, or I would attempt to tug it from his iron grasp. Talking him out of it never worked either. Eventually I gave in, and whenever he found a dead animal, I’d congratulate him and we would walk home, him, me, and a fly ridden carcass. We would show up on the back porch, stand in front of the screen door while I called Mama so she could see his new friend. She would appear at the door, wiping her hands on a grease-stained apron and nearly scream, then she’d refrain and smile.  

“My, Ollie, what a nice little bird you have there.” Or mouse, or squirrel, or whatever the hell it was. Oliver would smile sheepishly in return. After he had fallen asleep Daddy would steal the animal and bury it in the backyard. There would be a slight fit in the morning, but that would pass quickly once I offered to take him to the woods again.

It was a sweltering summer. Everything seemed to be oozing and melting and pooling on the ground. The trees sagged and we all dragged our feet through the muddy ground and breathed the wet woollen air. Even Mama, who I had never seen break a sweat, was constantly wiping her brow and panting like any old man. She would smile, embarrassed, and say “Why, I’m just like any ol’ country girl.” Mama was from the city, and was constantly in battle with the local women, arguing that they acted like their husbands.

Ollie and I set out in the morning, before the sun had fully risen. He ran in front of me and then turned back to beckon me towards him. That was another thing about Ollie, he had never said a word in his life, not a single “Mama” or “Dada” as a baby, never once had he turned to me and called me “Sissy.” That was the reason why Ollie wasn’t in school. He had gone to Kindergarten for awhile, but he never talked there either. The teacher never asked him anything and he sat in the corner and picked the wall paint.
Whenever he set foot on the playground I would have to go with him and hold his hand. Mama never actually told me to do this, and I didn’t want to, but whenever Ollie was outside he would get stared at, and I couldn’t have him be stared at all alone. About a week into the school year a few fifth graders crowded around us and pointed. I was in fourth grade, but I was short anyway, and they towered over Ollie and me like giants.
Danny Trout, the school bully, sneered at me. “What are you doing, holding hands with that retard?” All of his boys laughed and snorted. I didn’t even know what that word meant, but whatever it was, I knew it was something mean. I got angry and launched myself at Danny, pinning him to the ground and pummeling him. I might have been a girl, but I had the best right hook in all of Wayfork Grammar School. I was a tomboy, and was always getting in fights. My hair was short, and I only wore dresses to church and school.
Later that day I was sitting on the back porch with my Daddy, who was sipping a beer. His hands were calloused and dirty from working on cars all day. I had just had a spanking for beating up Danny Trout, and I had to apologize as well.
“Daddy,” I said, my voice still a little shaky from crying.
“Yeah?” He asked, swigging his Pabst. Daddy always drank the cheapest thing he could find.
“What’s a retard?” I asked. Daddy stopped drinking and I looked at my Sneakers.
“Sue-Ella, where’d you hear that word?”
“Danny Trout.” I mumbled spitefully. Daddy sighed, then handed me the can.
“One sip.” He said. I gladly obliged and took a big gulp of beer. It was bitter and it burned my tongue, but I held it in and forced it down.
“A retard is a person whose mind don’t work like yours does. They just take longer.” There was a pause in the conversation, and Daddy and I listened to the crickets.
“Is,” I stopped and shuffled my feet around the steps. “Is Oliver a retard?” I whispered. Mama’s voice came from the other side of the screen door.
“Supper!” She called. I quickly handed Daddy his beer, stood up and ran inside. He never told me whether or not Ollie was one, but I could guess.

We were strolling through the woods. Nearly four years had passed since that day. I was going into Eighth Grade in the fall, at Wayfork Junior High. My hair wasn’t cut short now, it was long and I tried to brush it every morning. I didn’t wear overalls anymore either. I smiled a little as I remembered how Danny Trout was still scared of me, even though he was in going to be in High School. Oliver was nearly nine years old.  
We had been walking for nearly four hours, and it was about eleven o’clock. The trees provided a little bit of shade from the lazily dripping sun, but we were still sweating like pigs. Ollie was panting but still determined to find himself a dead animal. We had not found anything yet; I had secretly seen a squirrel that must have been gone for two days, and in this heat it was rotted, slimy and densely covered by flies.
It was then that we heard the bark. Really, it couldn’t have been described as a bark, more of a whimpered wheeze. It came from just over a hill, and Oliver was instantly racing upwards, forgetting that he was hot and tired, and he focused on that one, pitiful sound. I caught up with him a minute later, to find him petting the skinniest, ugliest mutt I had ever seen. It had flies and fleas and was panting, its tongue lolling about. One eye was brown and the other was completely white. The dog was brown, and its ears were ripped and lopsided, its coat had patches of missing fur, and its long tail thumped against Ollie’s leg. Ollie was smiling; he loved dogs.
“Oliver, no! Come here Oliver.” I ordered. My brother looked and grinned sheepishly at me. I thought the dog would be rabid, so I grabbed his arm and wrenched him away. I pulled my brother backwards slowly and swung a stick in front of us to ward off the dog.
“Get!” I yelled at it. It cocked its mangy head and smiled. It trotted towards us and its face met my club. “Get!” I yelled again.
Ollie wriggled out from my grasp and ran towards the ugly dog. “Cheerio!” He piped as he ran.
“No Ollie!” I yelled. Then I was silent and still. “Did you just say something?” I asked, my voice almost cracking.
“Cheerio!” He repeated, scratching the dogs ears.
“Wh-what?” My voice was quivering and I dropped my stick.
“Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” He sang. He didn’t seem to realize that he was talking, and that talking was such a big deal for him.
“Is that his name?” I asked, hoping for him to keep broadening his vocabulary.
“Cheerio.” He whispered. I took a step closer, I was completely dumbfounded. I had never heard Ollie speak, ever. His voice sounded like any voice does when it’s first learning. The word ‘cheerio’ sounded more like “theerio” with lots of spit flying everywhere.
I kneeled next to my brother on the cool dirt. “Hey, Cheerio.” I said, scratching the dog’s ears. Ollie said it again and I started to cry so I hugged him.
“Cheerio.” He kept on saying over and over again. “Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio.”
“We’ll take Cheerio home, okay?” I said, helping Ollie up and brushing off his shorts. We started to walk home and the dog followed us, wagging his tail.

“What on earth...?” Mama said when she saw us standing on the porch with a mangy dog.
“Mama,” I said “this is Cheerio.” I signaled to the dog.
“No.” She said. “Take him back to wherever you found him.”
“But Mama Ollie...”
“Oliver can have his dead birds every now and then but he cannot have a live dog.”
“But we...”
“Sue-Ella, I expect..” She started, but then Ollie interrupted.
“Cheerio!” He piped happily. Mama froze and stared at him.
“Oh my lord.” She whispered, frozen, then her arms rushed to hug Ollie.

We fed Cheerio table scraps and he slept outside under the porch, Mama wouldn’t let him anywhere near her carpet. Daddy didn’t like the dog at all, he thought he was a useless mouth to feed that we couldn’t afford. He and Mama were arguing about the dog, and Ollie and I were outside feeding him watermelon slices. Ollie didn’t talk again for the whole evening, but for about a week he would say “Cheerio” at any given moment throughout the day.
We had had the dog for a couple of months; Daddy hated him, Mama was growing tired of him, and Ollie adored him. Daddy slept with a shotgun beside his bed, and I would often catch him sitting on his bed and watching Ollie and the dog, his hand was always rested on that gun. If it weren’t for Ollie, that dog would be dead right now.

We took Cheerio to the woods with us every morning that summer. He would always scout out ahead of us, sniffing the hot steamy ground. Then he would run towards a bush and pounce. Cheerio always tried to kill birds, but they were too quick for him. Eventually he settled for the dead things; the mice and the raccoons and the squirrels. He never ate a single carcass that we found in the woods, as any normal dog would do. He would trot back towards us, dead animal hanging from his gentle mouth, crooked tail wagging. He would walk right up to Ollie, sit down and puff out his chest as if to say “Well? Aren’t you pleased?” Ollie was always delighted when this happened. He’d throw his hands in the air and yell “Cheerio!” Then hug the dog and examine the body.

Cheerio never came inside with us, but that didn’t matter because he played with Ollie all day anyway. At night we’d go inside and shut the screen door. Ollie and Cheerio would crouch on either side of it, watching each other intently; never daring to push open the door for fear of getting in trouble. Then I would drag Ollie away into our room and sing him to sleep.

I had my own bed, but I always slept in his because he used to have nightmares. He would curl up against me and cry and cry. He would sweat all over his pajamas and sometimes he would wet the bed and I’d have to get up and do laundry. Once we got Cheerio, the nightmares stopped and Ollie even slept on the other side of the bed from me. We would wake up in the morning and Oliver would run outside, skipping breakfast and still in his pajamas.

Cheerio would still be curled up on the other side of the screen door, waiting.

The dog wasn’t as skinny as he used to be; he was almost fat. His skin was stretched tautly over a swollen belly that probably still had worms. His tongue still lolled wildly about in the air, his left eye was still white, and his fur still covered in mites and fleas. He was still as ugly as ever, but he was worth it.

I don’t know when, or how, it happened, but it did. We woke up one morning and Ollie ran outside to play with Cheerio. I went with him. The dog was pacing around the yard, stumbling and tripping over flat ground. He was swinging his head back and forth, back and forth. some brown foam dripped from his mouth. He started walking in circles, then suddenly, he looked right up at Oliver and me. Ollie yelled joyfully “Cheerio!” But I held him back.
I will never forget that rabid dog’s stare. Its eyes were the same color, but even from twenty feet away they looked terrifying, furious. His body became stiff and he just stared at us for what seemed like forever but was only a few moments. Ollie didn’t understand what was happening, and I was too scared to move. Then the dog’s body jolted and ran; zig-zagging, across the yard towards us. I pushed Oliver inside and slammed the screen door, then shut the wooden one and locked it.
“Don’t close the door!” Yelled Mama from the bathroom. She came out “You’ll keep all the heat... What’s the matter?”
I was panting and hugging Ollie to my chest. “The dog.” I said, closing my eyes and leaning my head back against the door. Mama understood.
“Henry!” She called. Then she ran back into the bedroom “Henry! The dog’s gone rabid!”
Daddy was immediately out, gun in hand, and heading towards the door. Ollie seemed to understand and began crying. Mama went with Daddy and they shut the door behind them.
“Oliver, come here.” I said. I pulled him to the bathroom, closed the door and sat down on the floor. Ollie came and curled in my lap. I don’t know why I chose the bathroom, probably because it was farthest away from any open windows.
“Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio.” He was sobbing into my shirt.
“Shh,” I soothed. I started to sing, I didn’t know what I was even singing until Ollie stopped crying. I was singing America the Beautiful.
There was a gunshot noise and a yelp, and Ollie stood up and raced outside. I didn’t try and stop him.

Cheerio had a funeral. We sang hymns and Daddy read from the Bible. His body was wrapped up in a blanket and put in the hole. Ollie gently placed a drawing he made on top of the little furry animal; it was a yellow piece of paper covered in green crayon with a little drawing of Cheerio made in orange. There was a lot of crying, but Ollie didn’t speak the whole time, not one “Cheerio.” We covered up the grave with dirt and stood there a while, under the sycamore tree, and then Mama and Daddy walked away. Ollie and I sat down next to the grave and then we started picking daisies and covering the little dirt mound with flowers. When we were done he curled up into my lap and I hugged him while we looked at the place where his dog was buried.
“Sissy.” He whispered.
“Hey Ollie.” I said, crying silently and kissing the top of his head.


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