‘0–25 lbs, cremation, scattered’

There are only five lines printed on the bill.

I read it, hunched over in the uncomfortable waiting room chair. Catheter, anesthesia, X-rays, surgery — each line with a neat integer amount printed next to it. $49, it says for one. $349, for the surgery. The exactness of the number strikes me as momentarily hilarious.

At least it’s not $349.99, plus shipping and handling, I think. Buy now, and get another free. Y’know, for the next time your dog gets mauled by coyotes and dies during surgery.

I get to the last line. 0–25 lbs, cremation, scattered. Printed next to it, almost like an insult to injury, is “$0.”

It hit me like a steel fist to the gut, knocking the air out of my lungs as easily as it pushes all thought out of my mind. My breath hitches. My eyes water. A single tear drop smudges several of the precise, black letters printed on the paper. It is as if all the horror, the worry, the despair I had felt over the past few hours had crystallized into a startling certainty.

She’s gone.

My dog is — was — named Lucky. Not exactly an unique name — in fact, the last time I checked, “Lucky” was battling “Fido” and “Spot” for the title of “Most Overused Dog Name.”

It was a fitting name, however. She had been a runaway that had run into our garage, the sheer amount of fur on her making her look more like a piece of dirty carpet than a dog. After a week or so of looking for her owner, I admitted defeat and adopted her.

That had been five years ago. Over the years, Lucky had proven the aptness of her name again and again. Once, she ran away in an unfamiliar neighborhood, only to be found in a park, a few miles and a couple of major streets away. More recently, my home was burglarized and, almost like an insult to injury, the burglar had left the door open. By the time I realized she was gone, she had been gone for an entire night. That had been the beginning of a week of frantic searching and covering every mailbox with “Lost Dog” posters. And then, almost exactly a week later, I found her picture on a shelter database. Lucky had been a day away from being euthanized when I finally got to her. It had seemed like a miracle, an odd conglomeration of coincidences that got her back home.

Three months later, I would wake up to find dark splatters of blood all around the backyard. Her luck had run out.

It’s hard to understand the role a dog plays in a person’s life when you’ve never experienced it for yourself. Logically, a dog is an animal, a creature that is guided mostly by basic instinct, inherently baser than a thinking human being.

But in the five years of being a dog owner, Lucky had become much more to me. She was a confidante who I knew would never betray my secrets. She was always overjoyed to go on a walk, no matter how hot or cold it was outside. It was the closest thing I have ever had to an unconditional friendship. And, no matter how terrible or stressful my life was at a particular moment, I knew that all I needed to do to forget about plummeting GPAs or upcoming tests or strained friendships was to go out into the backyard and listen for the jingling of dog tags.

All of that … erased with that single line: 0–25 lbs, cremation, scattered.

I’m not sure why that sentence stays so fresh in my memory, even a month after the fact. It’s one of the clearest things I can remember from that day. Maybe it’s because of how frighteningly objective it is. Fire is the ultimate cleanser, it has been said, but I try not to think of soft fur and floppy ears being reduced to ashes. Better than imagining rotting flesh and bone underground, but not by much.

A constant for almost a third of my life, utterly erased from the world. Apart from the bloody dog beds in the garbage and the empty food bowls in the basement, it was as if she had never existed.

All it took was one six-word sentence.