Nathan C. Zackroff - "Tin Soldiers"

Mueller came away from the eye doctor squinting at the various keys on his key ring. His pupils, now the size of elderberries, distorted his vision and blended all of his keys into one oddly shaped cluster. His eyes hurt, the feeling of them pulsating and cracking, the veins squeezing tighter and tighter. The flimsy glasses the optometrist gave him tinted his surroundings in orange. The rain fell heavier and everything looked as though he was trapped inside an old television set. Even at 42, Mueller couldn’t help but pretend that this was what Mars looked like, an Earth simply tinted in rust.

He flicked one key over the loop, then another, until he had to take a deep breathe and start again. Mueller frustrated easily. He clenched the keys in his hand and then slammed his palm against the roof of his car.

“Sir?” he heard from behind him. He turned to find an elderly woman standing crookedly below him. She was wearing a transparent raincoat with pumpkins on it and held a yellow umbrella that was collecting water in the nylon basins between its metal skeleton.

“May I help you?” he asked.

“Would you mind terribly watching Fellow for a moment?” Her voice was scratchy and Mueller had a hard time making it out.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m afraid I need to run into the pharmacy and they don’t allow dogs. Do you mind terribly?”

Mueller looked down. The shape of a skinny dog shivered beneath the water filled canopy. Its fur was matted down and it had one large spot on the right side of its body. For all he knew, it could have been a large raccoon on a leash, but in the misty haze of Mars, he figured it was some kind of mutt.

“I’m sorry, how long? I really should be leaving.”

“No more than five minutes,” she said and handed him the leash and umbrella at once. Mueller fumbled his keys, trying to hold on to all three items. She patted him on the side of his stomach and said, “Thank you young sir,” and was suddenly gone in the haze of orange.

Mueller dropped his keys back into his pocket and leaned against his car. Rain fell more steadily now and Mueller was thankful the woman lent him the umbrella. He was not dressed for the weather. He always wore jeans and golf shirts to doctors’ offices. It was a comfort thing, in case the stethoscope or rubber gloves made an appearance. Why he wore it to the optometrist, he was unsure.

After fifteen minutes of waiting, Mueller pulled at the umbrella stem and shook the rain from the canopy. The dog barked and Mueller stuck a key into the driver’s side door. It was for the garage and again he fumbled with the keys until he was sure he had the right one. If someone were to walk by, Mueller felt the person would imagine him mad: a blind man with his dog trying to hijack a less-than-pristine 1968 sunlit gold Mustang.

He jumped in the car and told the dog to stay. He grasped for the handle, making sure to close the door and cinch the leash tightly in between them. The dog barked timidly from outside.

Twenty more minutes passed. The dog sat on the sidewalk, the fur underneath his belly wet and dirty. The dog seemed fine, it wasn’t whimpering or barking or shaking. How long was he supposed to wait? From the fogged car window, Mueller noticed a bike rack on the opposite side of the road and figured he could tie up the dog there so the woman could find it on her way back. He opened the door and pulled at the leash, but the dog suddenly resisted. He practically dragged it across the asphalt, the mutt holding back with a stubborn fury. He double tied the knot to the hollow metal pole and headed back for his car.

The rain was coming down sideways now. Mueller jumped in the car, took off his glasses, and pinched his finger and thumb tightly to the arch of his nose. He kept his eyes closed and listened to the pinging of water droplets against the car’s sheet metal frame. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the haze of the dog through the rain. It shivered violently and stooped low, not sitting, but crouched as though waiting for a snake to strike. Mueller’s wife would never let him leave it, and though he could lie—or simply refrain from telling his wife about this predicament—he knew one way or another, she would get it out of him, she always did.

He jumped out of the car and opened up the door and pushed the front seat forward. He crossed the road and untied the leash from the rack and urged the dog back to the car. This time it did not hesitate to run by his side and jump athletically into the back seat.

Just then Mueller realized the dog was missing its left paw just below the hind leg where the arch was, almost like a tennis racket without the handle. He couldn’t fathom how he didn’t realize this earlier, but indeed the dog walked as though on three stilts, shuffling back and forth so his weight never went too far left or right. Three legs or four, Mueller found he cared no less or more for the dog.

“Don’t you shake, don’t you dare shake,” Mueller said. His eyes throbbed. Again he pinched his nose with his thumb and index finger. He turned on the windshield wipers and they creased across the windshield, a small ripple just ahead of the lead wiper. The car slowly crept into traffic, Mueller’s mind only on getting home and out of his wet jeans and shirt.

He figured he’d take the dog back, stick him in the garage until his mind cleared, and then he could take it to the shelter. About two minutes from home, Mueller began to question his logic. Should I have waited longer? He checked the rearview mirror and could see the dog’s head poking up from behind his headrest. He was bigger than he realized: a mutt with a little husky in it maybe. The dog didn’t move much and hardly made a sound. But when Mueller pulled into his driveway the dog’s head sprung up and he began a low rumble of a growl.

“One second, one second,” Mueller said. He twisted out of the car and opened up the back door. The dog jumped down and Mueller watched the three-pawed act again. He grabbed the dog’s leash and tugged him around the side of the house. He opened up the gate and carefully closed it behind him. The back yard was a mess from the storm. The patio furniture was soaked and its cushions were thrown across the lawn. The sun perched over the shingles on the roof and made the grass look like a deep and shiny sea of algae.

Mueller let go of the leash but the dog did not move.

“You stay put,” he said. He walked to the patio and swung open the backdoor. “Mary, come here real quick.”

His wife appeared in the door. She had short, dark hair and a particleboard build. Her head poked out like a groundhog’s and asked what Mueller wanted.

Mueller turned and pointed toward the dog. It sat still, looking like a cheap plastic yard statue from a super-retail store.

“What’s this?” Mary asked.

“A woman told me to look after it. I waited for nearly forty-five minutes but she never showed.”

“And you brought it here?”

Just then a girl no bigger than a bag of potting soil appeared in the doorway. Her pink seersucker dress was covered in flour and on her left cheek was half of a white handprint. She looked up to Mueller and then turned, noticing the dog for the first time.

“A pup,” she whispered. Then the excitement burst out of her. She nearly started to cry and rushed to the dog with zero apprehension.

“Don’t,” Mueller uttered, but she was already to the dog. She tapped at his head and scratched up and down its back. The dog barely flinched. His head tilted slightly towards the sky and he began to sniff the air.

“Where is his paw?” The young girl asked.

Mueller simply shrugged. He couldn’t think of an answer. Mary swatted the back of her hand against his shoulder. “Now what?” She said.

“I just need a second, my eyes, they’re killing me.” He slid sideways through the door and past Mary. From behind him he heard his daughter ask, “What’s its name?”

“Fellow.”

“What kind of a name is Fellow,” Mary shouted.

“I didn’t name him,” Mueller muttered under his breathe and then disappeared into the darkness of his bedroom. Mary followed.

“Oh no, you have to take care of this,” she said, “We can’t keep it, we don’t have the time.”

“I know this,” he said.

He pulled a pillow under the back of his head and let out a long sigh.

“In the morning, I’ll take it to the shelter.”

“They’ll kill it,” Mary said. Just then their daughter turned the corner, the dog by her side, sopping wet.

“No, the dog needs to stay outside.”

“You can’t kill it,” their daughter shouted.

“Honey, we’re not going to kill it, but we can’t keep it.”

“Right,” Mueller chimed in. Mary’s chin turned over the back of her shoulder and her eyes shot Mueller a glare he knew all too well. He had seen this look before, a sternness in her eyes that told him she was upset, but more than upset, she was exhausted. She looked it too. Her hair was spiraling up from her scalp and sweat ran across her forehead. Her hands were dirty from gardening or baking, or more likely, both. Mueller knew it was unfair of him to slink away, but his eyes hurt and in the moment, nothing else seemed to matter; the more talking there was, the deeper his eyes seemed to swell into his head.

“We have a yard,” their daughter argued.

“It’s not about the yard, it’s about what’s best for the dog.”

“I’ll take care of it. I can, right Dad?”

“We can’t, honey, please just take it outside and make sure the gate stays shut. I will take it to its home as soon as my eyes feel better.”

“I won’t forgive you!”

This was their daughter’s newest and favorite threat. Mary hated when she said it, but Mueller knew that there was truth in the fact that children never truly forgive their parents, that’s just how the world worked.

“Honey, this is final. Please take the dog back outside and help your mother clean up the mess it made.”

Mary slammed the door when they exited. The noise shook the lamp on the bedside table and Mueller instinctively grabbed at it to make sure it didn’t fall. As he let it settle next to him, he reached around and grabbed for his pillow and just laid there, one arm still extended on the nightstand.

As he began to doze he thought of the woman in the rain. His memory of her was even hazier now. He felt he was again outside with her, his eyes now peacefully shut. He could smell the rain.

The deeper he fell into his dream, the more the woman became a ghost. Soon he was sure he was outside, but he still could not move. In his paralysis the woman in his mind shuffled up next to him. His car was there too and it was running, black smoke puffing from the exhaust. When he looked down, he saw his keys in his hand. His fingers began to tremble and the keys fell through his palm as though nothing were there, no skin or bones. Then it was raining hard, the wind lashing the droplets across his face in a painful patter. The sun shifted behind a large mountain of clouds and there was only darkness. In the darkness, he heard the barking of the dog and the rattling of his keys.

Then, with a jolt, Mueller woke from his dream. The bedroom door flung open and Muller came suddenly erect. Mary stood in the doorway. It was darker out, and though the rain seemed to have stopped, the air was damp and the sun’s final light crept over the floor around Mary’s feet.

“It’s time for dinner. I need you to start on the beans.”

Mueller nodded. He pulled his legs over the side of the bed and stood rigidly as he shuffled forward. He came through the bedroom door into the kitchen. Mary was over the stove with a wooden spoon and the room smelled of asparagus and butter. Mary refused to turn and face him.

“Where’s the dog?” Mueller asked.

“With your daughter, they’re running around and making a mess with the whole damn neighborhood.”

“Why did you let that happen?”

Mary turned around and for an instant he thought she might hit him.

“I mean, why did you let her take it out. That thing could be dangerous for all we know.”

“The dog’s about as dangerous as a tree stump,” she said, and then she turned the stove top off and took the asparagus off the burner and placed it on a kitchen towel on the dining room table.

“I’m going to call them in. Can you please heat up the beans?”

Mary straightened her shirt and walked to the front porch. Mueller went over to the sink and watched her from the kitchen window. She took a couple of deep breaths as she stood on the porch, then, with sudden energy, she bounded down the front steps as though she was twelve years old. She disappeared around the corner just as Mueller heard her shout for their daughter.

Mueller opened up the cabinet above his head. No beans. He stooped down and searched through the lower cabinets, but again found nothing.

He knew he had bought the beans the previous day. Mary always left them in the upper cabinet or the cabinet under the silverware. Neither had beans.

He went to the front porch to call out to Mary. It was as silent as a night in the neighborhood could get and he looked over the yard and the garden below their poplar trees. It was just dark enough to hide the deep purple of the lilacs intertwined with the tree’s tangled roots.

Then, on the sidewalk, he saw it: the can of beans. He felt for a second that he must have still been dreaming, but he knew he wasn’t. The can stood as steady in the night as a tin soldier ever at attention. And then, a scream broke his gaze. A neighbor’s kid banked around the corner of their house and came running directly at Mueller. At first he was startled and took a step back, but then the three-pawed dog jumped up from behind the boy, his tongue hanging from his head. Right behind the dog was his daughter, a wild smile on her face as her blonde hair flipped over her eyes. They all ran like crazy men, weaving in and out like drunken hooligans.

The young boy made a sharp right turn, and as he did, he screamed, “Kick the can!”

The boy extended his leg back and balanced himself just for a moment before letting the leg fall forward. It came down like the back end of a trebuchet and the boy’s laces connected perfectly with the can of beans. The sound was lackluster compared to the theatrical action. A dull thud came from the kick and the boy immediately pulled his foot up in pain. The can rolled over, a small dent left in its side.

Mary came around from the other end of the house when she heard the noise. Mueller caught her eye, curious as to what exactly was going on. They both looked to their daughter, the dog at her side and her hair still draped across her face. She began to laugh ferociously and pointed at the neighbor’s boy. Holding back tears, the boy bounced up and down on one leg.

Her laughter continued, a shriek of uninhibited joy. The dog looked up to her curiously as she heaved back and forth in delight. Finally, through her choked outbursts, she said, “It was full. The can was full,” and she laughed again.

Mary and Mueller could not help but began to laugh as well. Watching her they saw her blameless mind at work. She had put out the beans, surely, and knew this would happen. And, when it did, she celebrated with laughter as she wobbled back and forth, holding the dog’s head in her hands to steady herself.

All of their laughter joined together in unison. They laughed without any control or attempt to conceal their wailing. And when they stopped, in between their gasps for air, the three-legged dog barked in what Mueller assumed was laughter as well. He was laughing along side them; laughing at the dented can of beans; laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Then the neighbor boy started off in a run. He limped away and continued to howl in both discomfort and embarrassment. Mueller could not stop laughing. He knew it was wrong and felt that guilty ping in his stomach, the retched feeling so close to hunger. He could feel the child’s embarrassment. He wanted to run to his daughter and tell her not to point and make fun of others. But instead, he smiled along side them. Their laughter, all of theirs, cascaded over the neighborhood and the dog’s barking continued like a metronome to their amusement.


Nathan C. Zackroff is a young writer from Denver, Colorado. He studied English and Creative Writing at The University of Colorado at Boulder and now works in Education. He has previously been published in Down in the Dirt Magazine and The Prague Revue. You can contact Nathan at NathanZackroff@Gmail.com.