“You ever see any deer out here?”

“Sometimes,” Drew replied.

He bent and picked up the split pieces of wood and tossed them into the back of his pickup. They landed with a bang that echoed in the clearing and set the dog barking. He placed the axe-head on the ground, propping the handle against the Ford’s bumper, then wiped sweat from his face with the front of his shirt.

“Shut up, Spongebob.” Drew stared at the dirty Labrador and laughed. Ridiculous, you just can’t respect an animal with a name like that. He had pushed for Roy or Boomer but the kids had insisted. The dog looked at him expectantly, her tongue swinging loosely and her sandy tail thumping the cold ground. Spongebob huffed a quiet, defiant bark and ran behind the truck with her nose to the ground.

Walter watched the dog disappear. “Not my business but that’s a terrible name for a dog.” He used the trailer hitch to open a Sam Adams and handed the bottle to Drew who accepted the bottle gratefully, closed his eyes and took a slow, deep swallow. He always had a case of Bud Light, sometimes Corona, in the fridge but Walt insisted on drinking premium.

Drew set the bottle down on the tailgate and placed another log on the old tree stump. He smiled, “It’s a cartoon character.” He gestured and Walt handed him the axe, handle first. Drew lay the axe across his shoulder and nodded towards the pines flanking the east edge of the clearing. “Last year I had a clean shot on a buck just a few hundred feet into the woods but I don’t like shooting so close to the house. Mostly the dog scares them off, though.”

He planted his feet and dug in like he was up to bat.  His leather work-gloves creaked as he tightened his grip on the axe handle and he inhaled to a count of four. He looked around to make sure he was clear, exhaled sharply and swung the axe in a long, slow arc that neatly split the log and buried the tip of the axe into the stump with mellow ‘thunk!’

Walt grunted,  “If you ever came by our place you’d know I have my own kids so I know he’s god dammed cartoon character.” He opened a beer for himself and sat heavily on the tailgate. Staring into the pines, he said “I seen more of them shows than, shit, than I thought was possible. You can whine about working first shift weekends but you’re getting overtime, skip the cartoons and get home just in time for dinner.”

Drew could hear Spongebob snuffling in the bushes to his right.

He nodded at Walt but he hated going to the mill on weekends and would kill to spend that time with his family. “It was Dot’s idea to get a new dog after Mandy was shot and we let the kids name her to help them forget what happened. She’s buried over there”. He gestured with the axe to a bald spot in the grass then bent to set up another log. This time he pointed with his chin, the axe over his shoulder, “Over there we buried Lindsay, she was a rabbit, and over there we buried the chickens, Rover and Elvis. What was left of them, anyway.”

“Jesus, Drew.”

“Yeah, I know. Accidents happen but we lived and learned. They was only pets.” He dug the heels of his boots into the dirt, softened his knees and inhaled…one…two…three…four…

He blew out his breath in a puff and he swung the axe into slow motion as Walt sat upright and blurted, “Look, a doe!” Drew snapped his eyes in the direction Walt was pointing and realized, too late, that Spongebob was barking from somewhere very near.  Alarmed, he looked down to see the dog leaping across the log and she yelped as the axe buried deep into her skull with a wet, muffled ‘thunk’.

The deer started then bounded away, deeper into the woods, as the two men stared at the dog , whimpering, with the axe in its head.  Walt sat back on the tailgate and exhaled a low whistle.

Still holding the handle Drew leaned over the dog and whispered,  “Spongebob?” Her ears flicked and she looked up at him.  

“I’m sorry…I’m SO sorry, Spongebob.”

Her legs were moving slowly; like she was swimming through thick cream and her tail beat a slow, heavy staccato in the dirt as she stared into Drew’s eyes with love.