The ranger pulled into Patcher Woods, parked on the shady side, and wrote the time into his notebook. 1102 hours. Immediately, two healthy middle-aged women in jogging shorts and delightful ponytails were beside his squad car, one with a cloud of freckles on her bare back.
He let them take in the decals on his door. People sometimes questioned the authenticity of a green and white squad car and an officer in a khaki uniform. When the women did not, he swung his long legs clear and stood on the hot asphalt.
“Some boys found it,” the woman with the blonde ponytail said. She was the one with the freckles. She and her friend led him along through the brambles and into the trees.
“Oooh,” she said after they had gone less that a dozen yards. “You can smell it already.”
“Yes, you can,” the ranger said.
He had five hours remaining on his shift, one hour til lunch.
What the women had found was covered with maggots. It was white with moving maggots and there was no way to tell what was beneath them.
“Probably a dog,” the ranger said.
“It could be a body,” the woman with the freckles said.
“Too small,” the ranger said.
“It could be a child,” the woman said. “We thought it could be a child.”
The second woman nodded. She was holding a handkerchief over her mouth and nose.
The ranger imagined himself turning that thing over.
“We better not touch it,” he said. “I have to call for ETs. Evidence technicians.”
He took the women’s names, addresses, and telephone numbers. He wrote down the time. He thanked the women and told them they could leave. He told them this in such a way that they did leave, and their feelings were not hurt. After seventeen years on the job, he had gotten rather good at this, but he could not have told you exactly how he did it.
The ranger did not call for the ETs. This was a dog, clearly a dog, rotting beneath those maggots. Dogs died and people covered them with leaves rather than bury them properly.
As soon as the ranger knew he was alone, he keyed his radio and called County. The dispatcher was a pleasant sounding young woman whose face he had never seen. “Would you,” he told her, “Would you call maintenance and have them send a crew over to Patcher Woods? We have a dead animal nuisance.”
Several boys came up the path. “Go away,” he said.
“Oh, it stinks!” one of the boys cried.
“It’s all wormy!” the other cried.
“Go away or I’ll call your mothers,” the ranger said. For some odd reason, this always worked.
The sun grew hotter. Mosquitoes settled on the ranger’s bare arms and when he smacked them with the flat of his hand he saw how bright and red his blood was. Finally he heard the rumble of heavy machinery on the road, and walked out of the woods to meet it. Maintenance had sent a front-end loader and a single laborer, a large bearded man named Ezekiel. Closely following was a yellow truck driven by Hank Butterworth, the area supervisor.
Butterworth was a political appointee, but a good man all the same. The ranger often had lunch in his office and debated politics with him.
The ranger directed them to the pile of maggots. The laborer, Ezekiel, had been with the forest preserve many years and was known for his strength. More than once the ranger had seen him lift a dead deer and toss it into the back of a pickup truck. “Not this baby,” he said. “I ain’t touching this mother.”
Butterworth pushed Ezekiel aside. “What the hell! It’s nothing but a stinking dog.”
He lunged forward, but stopped short of turning over whatever was under the maggots.
“Ezekiel!” he cried. “Bring that front loader back here!”
“Through the trees?”
“Screw the trees!”
The ranger and Butterworth waited while Ezekiel walked back to the road. “Everyone’s an environmentalist,” Butterworth complained. “There’s a million trees and he’s worried about knocking one over?”
The ranger shook his head. “So what do you think that thing is?”
Butterworth leaned forward. He was a fastidious man who dressed in sharp clean khakis and managed to look cool even in the most searing heat. There were framed photographs in his office showing him and his attractive wife attending political fundraisers in expensive evening clothes. There was even a photograph of him standing next to Richard Cheney.
“It’s a dog,” he insisted. “Can’t you see it’s a stinking dog?”
“It might be a kid.”
“And you call yourself a ranger? A kid would be wearing clothes!”
Trees crashed as Ezekiel rammed the front-end loader down the trail, small thin-trunked trees. Butterworth was right. They would grow back again.
“Scoop that sucker up, Zeke,” he ordered. “Get it right on out of here!”
It all happened rather quickly. The ranger watched as closely as he dared, but could not identify what it
was that Ezekiel scooped up and drove off with.
“See,” Butterworth said. “It was a dog.”
The ranger wasn’t so sure. He would have to have another look to be sure, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to take that look. The ranger had seen his share of bodies, bodies in cars, bodies in rivers, bodies frozen stiff in fields; there had been a body only three weeks ago, a body that had, before it became a body, shot a hole in its own forehead and sent its brains flying into a clump of wild raspberry bushes. The evidence technician had plucked them out of there with his gloved hand, and dropped them into a plastic bag just as casually and calmly as he would have handled a bunch of grapes.
When the ranger and Butterworth came off the trail, Ezekiel was already down the road, rumbling along with the scoop raised as high as it could be raised. There was some kind of a dump where maintenance took stuff like this. The ranger did not want to go there.
He sat down and he wrote his report and the report said: “Dead animal.”
By evening the ranger had almost forgotten the incident. He went on to another grove and looked for a man who had reportedly exposed himself; from there he mediated a picnic-shelter dispute between a Mexican family and a Korean church group. By the time he got back to the office he had only minutes to complete his paperwork, and to remember that once again he had forgotten to eat lunch.
Luckily his wife had spent the afternoon preparing lasagna. She was a good cook, even though she had taken up drinking in recent years. He was not sure if he should blame himself for this or if it even mattered. They got along well enough, the kids were grown and gone, and she really did like her drink.
The ranger went to bed alone that night. His wife stayed in the living room, watching that movie in which John Wayne fights Victor McLaglen from one end of Ireland to the other. She never missed a chance to see it. Lying in bed, listening to the sprightly Irish reels and the sound of fists popping on flesh and the brief silent spells when the fighting stopped and the combatants saluted each other with drinks, the ranger knew his wife would have a few extra tugs at the vodka bottle before she came to bed if she came to bed at all, and he wondered what the mighty John Wayne would have done with that rotted thing in the forest preserve.
His thoughts went to the blonde woman with the ponytail and the freckled back. She had been fine. Very fine. He let himself fall asleep thinking of her, hoping he could somehow lure her into his dreams.
But he could not. Instead he found himself adrift on a foggy sea, far from any sight of shore, and in the fog which was so very dense that it seemed to cover every part of the world, he heard a small and weightless voice calling out to him, to him, to him, and to no one else but him.
“Oh, help me,” this small naked voice cried. “Help me, help me, Oh, someone please help me.”