“The orange juice is weird,” Sam says.
“It’s not fresh. Sometimes Daddy makes it fresh, remember when he uses the juicer and oranges?” Sam’s mom takes a sip of her juice. “It’s not bad. I think it tastes great.”
“Daddy’s is better.” Sam pushes his glass away. “I want real oranges.”
Sam’s mom (real name: Elena) pushes the glass back to Sam. “This orange juice is made with real oranges, sweetie. They take the oranges, squeeze out the water, make a concentrate, then they freeze it so they can ship it, and they add water again. It’s called reconstituted.”
Sam isn’t impressed. “It doesn’t taste as good.” He thinks. “You add water to it and it’s real oranges again?”
“Absolutely real oranges.”
Sam takes another sip. “Hunh,” he says.
Since the loss of Zipper, Elena and her husband Rick have tried to be especially gentle with Sam. He is only six and Zipper, a hyper grey Cairn terrier mix, was his first pet. Explaining Zipper’s death was an especially delicate task. Rick told Sam how in the morning he’d come downstairs to see the doggie door, usually closed at night, wide open. And when Rick went to look for Zipper in the back yard, all he could find was Zipper’s collar.
“But what happened to Zipper?” Sam said.
“It’s dangerous for little dogs here in the hills,” Rick told him. He squeezed Sam’s hand. “I don’t think we’re going to see Zipper again. I’m afraid a coyote got into the yard.”
“But why would a coyote kill Zipper? They should be friends.” Sam was trying very hard not to cry.
“Coyotes are wild animals. They’re hungry – ” A look from his wife made Rick change his wording, “That’s what they do. They’re not trying to be mean or evil.”
“You’re sure Zipper’s not coming back?” Fat, wet tears began to fall down Sam’s face.
“I’ll look again. Okay, sport?” There wasn’t a reason to look again. Rick had found Zipper’s body, chewed and mangled by at least one coyote. He’d wrapped the body in an old towel and put it in the trunk of his car. Cleaned the blood and gore from the back patio and later that morning, on his way to work, he’d stopped by the vet. “Coyote,” he said as he handed over the remains of Zipper. “We’d like to cremate him.”
Zipper was the third or fourth pet they’d cremated. The first time, not long after Rick and Elena had been married, they’d had to put down Perry Mason, a German shepherd rescue, twelve years old, adopted at ten. Two years of a good life until kidney disease took over and they made their final trip to the vet.
As they were sitting with Perry Mason in the exam room afterwards, their hands on his tummy, feeling him grow cold, a technician came in and gave them a brochure from Eternal Pets, a pet crematory. Rick wasn’t sure, but Elena insisted. “Perry Mason deserves to be remembered.”
“I think he’s in syndication. Forever,” Rick said Elena didn’t speak to him for ten minutes. Or at least until he agreed to the pet cremation and a few days later they drove out to a small building in a part of the San Fernando Valley they’d never heard of, and they selected a medium-sized bamboo box with laser engraving, “Perry Mason, Best Dog Ever.”
“And of course if we ever have any other dogs, we can’t show them Perry Mason’s box, because that would give them a complex,” Rick said to Elena and for a while they kept the bamboo box on Rick’s dresser in the bedroom where it was eventually covered with ties and loose change. More pets arrived – a mean one-eyed mostly beagle rescue, black and white sister kittens who ran away nine months later, only to reappear occasionally, both fat and wearing collars (“I guess we’re the second family,” Elena said).
These days Rick picks an urn online and he’d almost forgotten about Zipper until the small, square box arrives and he’s not sure for a minute what it is. But Elena knows.
“Zipper’s home,” she says as she opens the box. They’d picked a simple silver-colored urn and this time they’re determined to have a pet funeral, something simple. They’ve found the perfect spot – under the oleander bush in the side yard. It will be closure for Sam, they decide. Because he needs it.
Since Zipper’s death, Sam has been inconsolable. Not eating, not wanting to watch TV or play computer games. Sam didn’t want them to move Zipper’s dog bed. “We’ll just put it in the garage,” Elena said, but Sam insisted it stay in the kitchen, under the table. He arranged photos of Zipper on his bedside table. Slept with Zipper’s dog collar held tightly in his fist.
“Zipper had a great life,” Rick tells Sam. “He didn’t live as long as we’d like, but he was loved and we were lucky to have him.”
No response from Sam. He is wearing the dog collar around his wrist, like a bracelet.
After Sam leaves the room, Elena asks Rick about getting another dog.
“Not yet.” Rick is wondering if Sam should talk to someone, a therapist. Are they handling this the right way?
When Sam comes home from school, Elena shows him the urn. “We wanted to pick something Zipper would like. Do you think he’d like this?”
Sam takes the urn in his hands and inspects it. Looks up at his mother. “Where is he?”
“Inside. Remember? After Daddy found Zipper’s body. We talked about what they do. About cremation.”
Sam doesn’t look convinced. “How do I know he’s really in here?”
“He is, honey. That’s why they sent him back to us.”
“I don’t believe you.” He starts to twist the top of the urn.
“No, Sam.” His mother takes the urn from him.
“But suppose he’s not there?”
Elena thinks. Why isn’t Rick around for moments like this? “Okay. We’ll open it and look inside. But just for a second. Because we’re going to have Zipper’s funeral over the weekend.”
Sam nods. But his eyes haven’t left the urn. Elena twists the lid - it’s been sealed tightly and she’s hoping not permanently. But it finally turns and she’s able to pull off the top. Sam leans over to get a good look.
“See,” she says. “Here he is.” She shows Sam the plastic bag, cremains inside.
Elena peeks at the bottom of the urn to see a sticker with Zipper’s name and the date of his death. “This is Zipper.” She hands the urn to Sam and he touches the plastic bag with one finger.
“Good,” he says.
“Sam’ll be better after the funeral,” Rick tells Elena. She’s brushing her teeth.
“Hope so,” she says.
“I miss Zipper, too. He was a good dog.”
Elena wipes her face with a towel. “A very good dog.”
Elena wakes up early – it’s her Peloton morning and she almost hates Rick, still sleeping, for buying a ridiculously expensive exercise bike and then daring her to use it, but she’s liking it more and more every day. When she goes downstairs, she’s surprised to see the urn on the kitchen counter. She picks it up and notices a spot of dust underneath.
Except it’s not dust. When she opens the lid, the plastic bag is there, but the cremains are gone.
It must be Sam, it couldn’t be Rick, but what would Sam do with Zipper’s cremains? Was he too impatient to wait for the funeral? Did he sprinkle Zipper in the back yard, flush him down the toilet?
Sam’s bedroom is dark, except for the Dobby nightlight. “Sam?” she says softly. There’s no answer from the bed, but there’s movement. More movement than you’d expect from a sleeping child.
“Sam. I know you’re awake. We need to talk.”
Sam’s head pops out from under the covers. Even in the dim light Elena can see his flushed cheeks. “Shhh, Mommy,” he says, putting his finger to his lips. “Zipper is sleeping.”
Sweet Jesus, they should have taken him to a therapist like Rick suggested, is he lying in bed with Zipper’s cremains, should she run upstairs and get Rick?
Sam is shaking his head at her. “You woke him up.” And a small, grey ball of fur crawls up from the bottom of the bed, very wiggly, and licks Sam’s face. “Stop it, Zipper,” Sam says.
“Zipper.” Elena’s voice is a whisper.
Sam is giggling, his face covered with kisses. “Reconstituted,” he says to his mother.
Ann Lewis Hamilton is a writer living in California.
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