Chapter 4 – Friends and Enemies

Grace dreaded going home — Psycho Kitty’s reaction to another cat would be ferocious. They already fostered five rescues for Giving Pets A Chance and Psycho terrorized them — as if they hadn’t suffered enough.

She kept the maximum number of cats the by-law allowed and faced this dilemma whenever she rescued another. Grace was permitted six adults, not including kittens, and the rescue group enforced it. When Hannah came for inspections she did a head count, and if Grace was hiding an extra orphan she’d seize the offending cat.

Grace worried about her landlord, too. He welcomed pets but changed his tune when she began rescuing again. Now he watched them like a fox stalking chickens, waiting for an unguarded moment to crush them with a snap.

They lived in a sprawling Victorian where Grace rented a small flat with a screened-in porch and a fenced yard. On the edge of Rowntree, her neighbourhood was a muddle of restorations and rooming houses. Every morning, as families packed their kids into Volvos, hookers and drug dealers stumbled home. The area had its share of strays and was a few blocks from the derelict homes and factories where she found her rescues.

Grace and Jules came up the sidewalk and hid behind a disorderly azalea before darting across the lawn and through the gate. Unfortunately, her neighbour Carla – the last person she wanted to see – was stretched out on a lounger.

“You’re home early.”

“I got fired.” Grace was still seething at Carla. She’d offered to help with the kittens then backed out at the last minute. “Charlie fired me for bringing them back and had security escort us out.”

Carla barely blinked. She’d dyed her hair platinum per her latest boyfriend’s preferences, but her roots were showing, so Grace knew his days were numbered.

“I told you I couldn’t keep bringing them to work. Thanks for the help, eh? I’ll remember that next time you want me to watch Sheba free.”

“Hey, it doesn’t take much to let Sheba out and feed her when I’m at Tom’s,” she said. “Those kittens are another story. I offered to pay you but you said no. At least I offered.”

“Consider the offer taken.” Grace struggled through the door with the box of kittens as she tried to block the herd of cats making a dash for freedom.

“Now that I’m out of work I’ll be desperate for money.” Then Grace kicked herself for hassling Carla. She’d need every recommendation she could get.

“I’m restarting Dog Gone It! If you know anyone who might need me please give them my card.” She wondered how many women would take her number once Carla finished their nails at the salon. “Or let me know, and I’ll call them.”

Grace closed the porch door then put the box down and removed its top. The cats rushed it, scenting the newcomer and jumping up for a peek. The mother popped up and hissed. She swatted them, her claws extended, raking the nosiest neighbour and drawing blood. Grace noted who needed peroxide but left her to it, knowing a mother defending her litter was a fair match against five cats. Psycho would be another story.

Two of the apartment’s windows opened onto the porch and their screens were torn. With a hiss and a lunge, Psycho jumped onto the inner ledge and spat at the new cat.

“Get down!” Psycho ignored her and clawed the screen. Grace slammed the window shut, so Psycho ran to the bathroom window and assaulted it.

Carla came to the door. “Psycho terrorizing the neighbourhood again?” She had little patience with Grace’s cat. When Carla saw the mother she exclaimed, “You found her, I knew would. Do you still have the other five?”

Grace put her finger to her lips, “Shhhhhh.”

“Better hope Roger doesn’t find out. You just missed him, he was here looking for dog poop.” If the landlord saw a tiny turd from a passing housecat, he blamed it on Grace.

“That’s all I need.” She rearranged the furniture, creating a nursery. She put the box in then tipped it over. The kittens tumbled out and the mother followed, striding around and marking her territory. Grace opened a giant tin of dry food and fed her, disappointing the other cats, who mewed in complaint.

“It’s not dinner time yet, guys,” she said, trying to put the lid back on as a long haired cat stuck his head in, “and you’re not nursing.”

Then it was time to confront Psycho. “Good luck,” Carla said.

The rescues were on guard, arching their backs, ready and hissing to fight. Grace reached up, unlocked her back door and pushed it half open, using the box as a shield. Psycho attacked, clawing at it as Grace forced her way inside.

As Grace unloaded her backpack, Psycho wove around her ankles, purring. “You have a split personality,” she sniped, knowing people said the same thing about her own mood swings.

Psycho Kitty was a rescue, the first Grace saved after she quit school. She was nine months old when her owners hurtled her outside for fouling their bed when she was in heat. They never let her in again.

A friend had seen his neighbours roughing her up. They grabbed her by the tail and dragged her under the fence once, and another time they’d backhanded her off the picnic table. They were heavy drinkers in a violent relationship who made the cat their scapegoat when they got her from the shelter at six weeks old.

So Grace adopted Kitty, who earned the name Psycho as her personality emerged. She resumed fouling beds, so Grace kept a shower curtain over hers to protect it from its daily defiling. She sympathized with the cat, suspecting she’d been separated from her mother too soon, just like Grace.

Psycho attacked every visitor, biting and clawing her way through life to avenge her childhood. She could turn in an instant, one moment purring then suddenly lashing out, and Grace hadn’t a clue what to do.

She tried everything – changing her food, her litter, buying toys – but Psycho seemed beyond rehabilitation. Grace read stacks of books about problem cats, but was baffled and had lost hope. Everyone told her to return Psycho to the pound, but Grace knew no one would adopt a cat like that — the vicious ones were killed to make room for the sweeter souls.

Friends thought the dichotomy was hilarious. “You can tame just about any dog, but when it comes to that cat, you’re hopeless – you should put her down.” The thought of euthanizing an animal she’d saved challenged Grace’s principles, but even Psycho tested her tenacity.

Grace locked Psycho in her bedroom when she brought Jules in for dinner. When they returned from their nightly stroll, there was a message on her phone.

“Hi, it’s Carla. I’m going to Tom’s. Can you let Sheba out before bed – you don’t have to walk her – and again in the morning? I’ll leave ten dollars. That should be enough, huh? Ok, see you later.” Carla had hung up and gone out, taking Grace and her paltry payment for granted.

Bringing Jules, they went upstairs for Sheba. Carla never walked her dog and thought a few minutes outside was all Sheba needed. Even on her days off, Carla wouldn’t bring Sheba into the yard with her. Carla proclaimed them “days to herself” because Sheba pestered her, wanting to play. The Sheltie-cross was thrilled to see them, and headed out on her tour of the ‘hood happily yapping at everything she saw.

When they returned, Grace let Psycho out. She hissed at Jules then took over Grace’s lap. As they crawled into bed later, Psycho took over the right side and Jules flopped on the floor on the left. Jules’ paws were flexing in imaginary leaps, and her cheeks puffed as she emitted hup, hup, hups at the rabbits she chased in her sleep.

But then smoke began billowing and Grace tried to scream but her throat was choked with soot and she could hear flames crackling and a howling wind as she kept calling their names and scrambling in the dark…

Mmrrrrmmm,” Jules called, nudging her nose against Grace’s shoulder. She jerked up and awake, trembling, then clasped her arms around her knees and rocked herself. The recurring nightmare returned whenever her world fell apart.

Grace patted the bed and scooched backwards, invading Psycho’s turf. The cat hissed and slashed her, drawing blood. Jules hopped up and lay beside Grace, who buried her nose in her fur. She inhaled Jules’ musky scent in place of the acrid smoke and manure she swore she smelled every time she had the dream.

* * *

In the morning, they went downtown to get Grace’s bike. Big dogs weren’t allowed on the bus without a muzzle and, refusing Jules the indignity of the Hannibal Lecter treatment, they walked instead. She envisioned her bike stripped by the time they got there but, as they approached the racks in the office plaza, a thief became the least of her worries.

A menacing figure was loitering near her bike. When he saw her approaching, he made a quick call then snapped his cell phone shut. He started walking backwards, keeping his dark eyes on them. A minute later Andy Boyles burst through the doors and stormed across the plaza.

Bitch! Did you think you were smart, spewing that shit in front of everyone?” Grace ignored him as she unwound the steel cord securing her bike. “Did you think I’d get fired? Think again, you crazy bitch. My father isn’t going to force me out of the firm he founded just because I had help on the LSATs and a few clerks trying to screw their way into a partnership.”

Sensing danger, Jules stood between them, exposing her canines and sounding a low, cautionary growl.

“Keep that mutt away from me, Dog Face, or she’ll get it.”

Bullied in school, Grace hadn’t taken any abuse ever since, especially not from Andy. She laughed at anyone who tried to intimidate her, especially when she had Jules with her. But now she felt a chill seeping through her soul.

Grace leaned across the bike and stabbed him in the chest with her finger, “If you mess with her there is nothing on this earth that will stop me from getting you. Karma will be the least of your worries, you slimy little shit.”

She swung her leg over the saddle and drew Jules’ leash in, “I’ll be happy to call your wife’s attorney and give her a deposition about Cheryl and Jennifer if you come near us. But if you hurt my girl…” Grace shuddered at the thought of what she would do to Andy if he tried.

“Screw off. Go bully some kid on the bus, someone your own size.” They cycled away to a stream of obscenities.

Mr. Russell had called that morning to ask her to start walking JR daily and give them obedience lessons weekly. When they arrived at The Dog House, she locked her bike to the fence as the Border Collie shooed them towards the lobby.

“Good morning, Mr. Collie. Herded any sheep lately?” She wondered why anyone would keep the prince of herders in an apartment in the city.

When Mr. Russell opened his door, JR lunged at Jules. Ready, Grace blocked him. “What did I tell you yesterday? Be nice!” The dog had hoped a new day would see him back in power. She pushed him over then gently clapped her fingers over his snout and stared him down until he looked away. Mr. Russell chuckled as he ushered them in.

Alpha Dog is steamed – they think you were trying to steal him and take over their business. I told them that was nonsense.” He swatted away their objections with his huge hand.

“I cancelled their contract but told them I’d still pay for the next two weeks. That’s a small price now that JR’s going to get – I mean, Lana and I are going to get obedience lessons,” he winked.

“I had a thing or two to say to them about losing JR yesterday. We were lucky you were there.”

“It worked out in the end,” Grace said. “You needed a better dog walker and I needed a job.”

“I’d like to give you a little reward for yesterday,” he said, nodding at an envelope on a table in the hall.

“Oh no, that’s not necessary, but thank you. I was just doing what any dog lover would.”

Grace was itching to take the envelope. She hadn’t saved JR for money — rescuing a dog was a reward in itself.

“Why don’t you donate it to an animal rescue group? Most are underfunded and could really use it. I volunteer for Giving Pets A Chance. They’re always desperate for donations. They’ll come by and pick it up and give you a receipt if you call them.”

She wrote their number on the envelope and handed it back to him.

* * *

As they crossed the atrium, a few tenants watched. One elderly man had a cigar butt in his mouth and an aging Bulldog on a chain. The dog sniffed the air as Jules walked by and let out a satisfied grunt that she’d passed muster.

They headed for the park and the scene of JR’s brush with death. Grace’s stomach was in knots fearing Alpha Dog might be there. She’d considered going to another park but refused to be cowed. They’d have to run into them eventually.

Once inside the gates, Grace removed Jules’ leash and let her run. JR tried to follow her but Grace didn’t trust him off-leash. They ambled along the path, JR stopping to sniff the pee-mail points, as Grace kept an eye out for Jules and Alpha Dog. When she heard a woman squawk she rolled her eyes and turned, knowing what was next.

“You shouldn’t have a dog like that running loose,” a woman sitting on a bench shrieked.

“A dog like what?”

“Like that,” she pointed. “One of those vicious breeds I’ve read about in the papers that bite children and mailmen. Get that thing away from me.”

“You have a better chance of being bitten by me than you do this dog, ma’am.”

Grace called and Jules ran towards them, her head bobbing, her tongue hanging out, and her curly tail bouncing on her back. She raced past then circled them in a wide arc as JR barked and lunged.

Jules was having fun at the little tyrant’s expense. She ran up, stopped just out of reach, then knelt down on her front legs. With her butt stuck up in the air she barked twice in the universal canine dare for, betcha can’t catch me. Then Jules darted off, dashing past JR again and again, taunting him with whup whup whups.

“Okay, okay, the party’s over, meanie. C’mon puppy, this way.”

“I’m calling animal control,” the woman hollered, hoisting her cell phone in the air, “there’s leash laws.”

“Yeah, you do that, keep animal control busy busting a dog that isn’t hurting anyone instead of busting people hurting dogs.” Dog haters ruined her day — she didn’t know why she let them.

Across the field, Grace recognized two Golden Retrievers they knew and waved. “Who’s that? Go see.” Jules flew across the park, bounding up to her buddies. The dogs greeted each other like long lost friends and began cavorting. The woman glared then opened her cell phone.

When Grace reached the Retrievers, her friend Steve was surprised to see JR. “Bringing another dog to work these days?”

“Nah, I got fired yesterday. I’m dogwalking again. Meet JR.”

She told him about rescuing JR and restarting Dog Gone It! They began bitching about people who expected dogs to live their lives on chains, as if God had created them in bondage.

Then Grace saw Alpha Dog marching towards them. The man had the maximum, six dogs, so his business hadn’t suffered overnight. Grace hoped he wouldn’t be too mad – at least he’d still be paid for a dog he didn’t walk.

“I knew you took him because you were trying to steal my business,” he said, shaking his finger in her face.

Grace remained passive but Steve was outraged. “Hey, she worked at a law office yesterday pal, settle down. She wasn’t trying to steal anybody’s dog or business.”

The six dogs encircled Mr. Alpha, excited to meet Jules and the Retrievers, hoping to join the fun. Grace laughed as he struggled to untangle their leashes again.

“C’mon puppy,” she said. Giving JR a check on his leash, they reached the gate just as animal control arrived. The truck slowed and honked. Grace waved.

“Busy?” she asked, knowing the answer was always, “Hell, yes.”

The woman stood, waved her cellphone, then pointed at Jules.

“We got a call about a vicious dog on the loose — seen one? Oh, no, don’t tell me…”

Grace chuckled as Jules raced up to the truck, stopped and sat. Mike got out and asked her to shake a paw, and then he rewarded her with a treat and a ruffle of her ears. The woman scowled — Grace could have kissed him.

“Thanks for helping with that call last week, you saved us a trip.”

“I don’t know what’s up with the cops, it was just a baby Pit Bull. He was running around in front of the mall and they had two cruisers blocking the street off. They wouldn’t go and get him or even try to put him in the car.”

“So you offered?”

“Hell, no, I just went up and asked him, ‘Puppy want a cookie?’ He followed me to the cruiser and jumped in the back when I tossed it in.”

“They have to call us when they’re stray.”

Grace guffawed. “He was an escapee, had a collar and a tag. I offered to take him home but the cop said he had to go to the pound so the owner would pay the fine.”

“I hear we got a call for you and Jules yesterday. The officer that responded is new, sorry about that. Had I known, I would have told him to take it easy on you, he didn’t need to treat you like hostiles.”

“Don’t remind me,” Grace said, watching the woman march towards them. “I guess that complaint about off-leash dogs didn’t mention the pretty blond Retrievers, huh?”

He shook his head.

“Figures, everyone picks on black dogs. Do you want to give us a ticket?” She put Jules on her leash for appearances.

Mike pulled a blank sheet from his notebook and handed it to her then shook his finger at Jules, “Don’t take treats from strangers.”

The papers were reporting another string of dog poisonings in the city’s parks. It had been happening on and off for years. The police said someone was lacing meat with strychnine again, but they had no suspects.

* * *

When they returned to Mr. Russell’s, the gentleman with the Bulldog was arguing WWII battle tactics with him. He stood and, with a military air, took off his beret and bowed.

“Well, well, I’ve been hearing a lot about you, Miss. I’m Naval Captain Thomas Durnford, Retired,” he said, “and this is Churchill.” He motioned towards the dog who had taken two steps back when JR arrived.

Grace kept JR on his leash. She walked him up to Churchill, emitting cooing sounds, and greeted the Bulldog like an old friend. When JR snarled she snapped his leash. “Look JR, who’s this? Is this someone come to visit?” JR didn’t look pleased at being tethered on his own turf.

“Say hello.” Grace prodded JR towards the Bulldog, who patiently let JR sniff him. Then it was JR’s turn. He jerked his tail and stood for inspection, completing the greeting ritual.

“Good boys,” Grace said, telling them to sit and rewarding them with treats.

Mr. Durnford turned to Mr. Russell with exaggerated surprise. The men laughed and slapped their knees, “You’re right, she does have a way with dogs. That is the first time they’ve ever been civil,” Mr. Durnford said. “I didn’t believe it when Jack told me, I had to see it for myself.”

Mr. Russell looked pleased and asked her to stay for tea. But she had to go, she had dogs to walk at the shelter.

Captain Durnford stood and proclaimed, “In Her Majesty’s Service I remain, and in your service I shall stay,” and he bowed again as she headed for the door.

A familiar logo caught her eye and she saw the receipt from Giving Pets A Chance on the table. It was made out for five hundred dollars.

Grace cursed herself, you stupid idiot — that’s half your rent you just gave away.

But then she exhaled and rolled her shoulders, shrugging it off, hoping the money would help some stray somewhere. Maybe Karma would pay her back someday.

Chapter 3 – The Sanctuary

October 1993

The school bus took the corner too fast and everyone grabbed the bar on the back of the seat in front of them and held on for dear life, crying “Wee!” or “Whoa, horsey!”

The next stop was Grace’s farm. Her nervous little ten-year old hands were so sweaty that she lost her grip and tumbled into the aisle. The children around her laughed raucously because the hem of her dress had ridden up, revealing her pink polka-dotted underpants.

As she scrambled onto her hands and knees to get up one boy mocked, “Look at the doggie on the floor!” Almost everyone burst into a chorus of hoots and catcalls.

“Dog Face!” one girl called. “See, she walks just like a dog!” teased another.

“Poochie-woochie want a dog biscuit?” An older boy leaned into the aisle and waved a chocolate chip cookie at Grace. “C’mon, show us how you walk on all fours and we’ll give you this treat!” Grace burned with shame.

Dust was billowing in through its opened windows as the bus rattled and shook down the bumpy country road. As she struggled to stand a foot hooked her ankle and pulled. Grace tumbled to the floor again.

“See, she can’t even stand up like a real girl,” Andy Boyles said, untangling his foot from Grace’s legs. “She’s a mutt,” he jeered, and let out a yowl, “Aroooooooo.

Andy began the chant that ushered Grace home from school every day, “Dog Face! Dog Face! Dog Face!” the children chorused.

As the bus slowed to a stop in front of her farm Grace pulled herself up. She grabbed her books and her Beethoven lunch box and started up the aisle. The drooling St. Bernard on its lid reminded everyone that her best friends were animals. Grace dodged the slaps and pokes of the riotous children as she ran the daily gauntlet.

Opening the door, the driver would not look at Grace. He maintained his policy of not interfering in the juvenile antics of his passengers. Every day Grace wished he’d come to her rescue and every day she was disappointed. She hoped he’d stand up and yell, “That’s enough,” or “Leave her alone,” but he never did.

Most of the children crowded to the right side of the bus. Some began hanging out the windows, barking and howling at the pack of dogs that waited for Grace at the end of her driveway.

“Your only friends are dogs,” Andy said, and everyone laughed along with the king of bullies. A few of the children played along in fear that, if they didn’t, they’d be the next target.

When she stepped off the bus Grace broke into an enormous smile. Relieved, she dropped her books and Beethoven and threw her arms around her welcoming committee. She rubbed their heads and ruffled their ears and scratched her way up their spines. Excited to see her, the pack of dogs encircled their little master, licking away her daily wounds, emitting cries of delight.

Five dogs met Grace’s bus after school. London was a mutt, a runaway from a chaotic home who’d ended up at the pound so often his next trip would have ended with a needle. Driving through town one day, Grace had suddenly opened the truck’s door, forcing her mother to slam on the brakes. She’d seen him loitering outside the butcher’s again and, ignoring her mother’s protests, dragged him into the truck. He was content with his new pack, as were his family, who were relieved of one less mouth to feed and no more fines from animal control. He pushed ahead of the others to greet Grace first.

Fetch was a Yellow Labrador of uncontainable energy who dropped his tennis ball at Grace’s feet. He picked it up, dropped it again, jumped back and barked until she threw it. Fetch tore up the driveway after it, barking mine, mine, mine, although he was the only one chasing it. Genetically engineered to retrieve water fowl, Fetch had been owned by a woman living in an apartment. She did not hunt, hated throwing the soggy, dog-slobbery balls and only walked him fifty feet from her building until he peed and pooed. Then she dragged him back to her curio-cluttered rooms where he paced constantly while she read an endless series of romance novels and drank copious cups of sweetened, milky tea.

Two of the dogs were mixed breed terriers, Mutt and Jeff. They joined the afternoon ritual faithfully but were employed on the farm. Her father had brought the experienced ratters home to catch the vermin that darted out from under bales of hay when they were moved or split. The dogs became incensed by the sight of the scurrying rodents, quickly nabbing, biting, and shaking them to death before tossing them away to wreak havoc on the next unfortunate creature trying to escape.

Finally, there was Bruiser. A big shaggy Newfoundland, he waited patiently for everyone to greet Grace because she saved her best friend for last. She knelt in the dirt and gravel and threw her arms around the friendly giant, burying her face in his thick fur. She sobbed, relieved she wouldn’t have to brave her cruel schoolmates for another day. They’d been teasing her mercilessly since she’d saved Bruiser. At home she was surrounded by her true friends, ones who did not call her names or laugh at her or tell her she had an ugly dog face.

“Hey Bruiser, how’s my boy?” She ran her hand through his waterproof coat, her fingers stopping at a burr entangling his fur, and she carefully picked it out as he covered her with slobbery licks. He was the first dog she had ever rescued, a story that became famous in the county, and was the catalyst that has propelled Grace’s mission in life ever since.

* * *

Grace loved to toboggan with her friends, Kat and Lex, at the hill behind the school. At the edge of the yard a chain-linked fence separated the grounds from a row of houses.

In one of the yards lived a huge black dog with a spray of white across his chest. He paced back and forth on his chain, watching the three girls and woofing at them when their toboggans approached and slid to a stop.

Grace kept dog cookies in her pocket for him. After she’d slide to the bottom of the hill she’d trudge through the thick, crusty snow to the fence and toss one over the top to the lonely, bored dog.

His water bowl was usually frozen and Grace would lay in her bed at night and say prayers to St. Roch, the Patron Saint of Dogs. She asked him to please remind that poor dog’s owners to change his water before they went to bed so he wouldn’t be too thirsty if he got up in the night for a drink.

Grace had been worrying herself sick about the Newfoundland since grade one. She never saw him loose; he was always chained up and always alone. Sometimes she would look out her classroom window and get tears in her eyes because she was sure he was miserable, confined to the tiny patch of ground that his chain limited his life to.

One spring morning when she was eight Grace got the bright idea of bringing him a tennis ball. She was sure it would cure his troubles because he’d have something to play with and wouldn’t be so bored or lonely anymore. After lunch she went to the fence and tossed it over.

She tossed it too hard and it bounced, skipping out of reach. The dog watched it sail over the fence in anticipation of his daily treat, but when he realized it wasn’t, he whimpered as it rolled away.

Grace was devastated. At that age every failure seemed like the end of the world and the fence was too tall to climb. She could hear the teacher calling everyone to form-up lines so she shouted at the house, hoping the owners would come out and give their dog his ball. But her voice was drowned out by the other screaming children.

“Grace Kendell! Get in line,” the supervisor boomed over the din. As she walked away, tears rolling down her freckled cheeks, she kept stopping to look back at the dog watching her and whining in frustration.

From inside her classroom Grace could rise up in her chair to see into his yard. He pulled and strained at his chain, trying to reach the ball. He clawed at the ground, trying to drag the patch of grass closer. All afternoon she wiped away tears and could not concentrate on the blackboard. She thought, almost obsessively, what a big fat stupid idiot she was. Instead of helping the poor dog she had made him miserable.

As the clock inched closer to three she was caught up in a single-minded determination to right her wrong. When the bell rang she ran out of class and through the side door. As she crossed the schoolyard the bus driver saw her racing towards the fence. She stopped about ten feet from it and looked down at the tennis ball. The owner had found it and tossed it back. Grace became furious. The dog watched her pick it up and barked at her to throw it back.

The bus driver saw her running the length of the fence then disappear around the corner. He told the monitor that 10400 Rosedale County Road was AWOL, then slammed the doors and started his route home. After the monitor saw the last of the buses off she went into the principal’s office to call Grace’s parents.

Grace kept running until she was out of breath. She stopped, inhaled deeply then marched on, determined to give that dog his ball. Counting houses, she walked up the driveway and peered along the side of the yard. She couldn’t see the dog but she could see a bit of his doghouse so she knew she was at the right place.

This indomitable little spirit walked up the driveway and rang the doorbell. Holding it a bit too long, it ricocheted through the house. When the inside door jerked open, the owner’s eyes popped at the sight of a girl on his step he’d never seen before.

He opened his screen door hesitantly, “Hello. What’s your name?”

“I’m Grace. What’s your dog’s name?”

“My dog? My dog’s name is Bruiser. Are you selling Girl Guide cookies?”

“You’re mean,” she said, then showed him the ball. “I threw this over the fence so your dog could have something to play with but you threw it back. Why won’t you let your dog have any toys?”

The man seemed startled by this brazen child and her accusatory tone. “I threw the ball back because I thought you might have lost it,” he said. “Where are your parents? Do you live around here? Do your parents know where you are?”

“Can I give this ball to your dog, please? Your fence is too big or I would’ve climbed over it.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said, then started to close the door.

Grace grabbed the handle, “Why don’t you play with your dog ever? He’s nice, he looks lonely. Why do you keep him on a chain when he could have your whole back yard to run in?” Her tone wasn’t just inquisitive — she sounded like she was running the Spanish Inquisition. He was becoming annoyed by her gall.

“What I do with my dog is none of your business.” He jerked the screen door out of her hand and slammed it shut.

“Well then why do you have him if you don’t play with him or let him in your house?” she shouted. “If he lived at my house, we have lots of big fields, and he could run around all day and he would have me as a friend.”

She became excited by this new and exciting thought, “If he lived with me he would never be lonely anymore.”

The man’s eyebrows raised, “You want Bruiser? What would your parents say if you brought a dog home without permission? I don’t think so,” and he started to close the inside door.

Grace began to scream, “You’re a meanie! You’re not nice to your dog!”

A woman pushing a baby buggy stopped on the sidewalk and watched them. He looked up and met his neighbour’s eyes but her expression was stern and unsupportive.

“I am going to tell my mother to call the police and tell them you’re mean to your dog!”

From the back of the house Bruiser began to bark, a deep, thundering accusation that sounded like yes, I am neglected, I want to meet the girl with the cookies and the ball.

His neighbour looked more than just concerned now.

The man became furious. He flung open the screen door so quickly Grace jumped back. He stormed out of the house and Grace raced after him. Hurling open the side gate, he strode into the yard, yelling at Bruiser to be quiet with a murderous look on his face. Grace’s little eyes widened in fear for Bruiser as he shrank back against the fence. She began screaming, “Leave him alone!”

“What is going on back there?” the neighbour yelled. She dashed after them, bouncing her baby and waking him up so that he wailed in protest too. “What are you doing to that dog?”

Mind your own business!” the man said, turning suddenly before he could smack Bruiser.

People were coming to their doors and peering at the commotion behind the house. An old beat-up pickup truck was cruising up the street and Grace’s mother rolled down her window and asked someone if they’d seen a little girl.

They pointed at the house. Mrs. Kendell floored it, speeding to the driveway. She jumped out of the truck and ran into the backyard where she could hear Grace screaming and a dog barking.

Grace walked over to Bruiser without an ounce of fear and said hello to the lunging, barking giant. He began licking her face and she hugged him and handed him his ball. He dropped it then sniffed her pocket, poking his nose inside. He flicked his tongue around to try to retrieve her last cookie — this tickled and Grace giggled.

“Mom, can we take Bruiser home with us?” Grace pleaded. “See, he likes me, he’s my friend. I bring him milk bones every day because he’s lonely.”

Mrs. Kendell blinked in surprise. She looked from the owner to the neighbour in confusion.

The young mother nodded, “I haven’t seen poor Bruiser walked since he was a puppy. Isn’t it sad when people ignore their dogs when they start to grow up and out of that cute phase?” She looked at her neighbour with disapproval.

“Take the goddamn mutt!” he retorted, “get him and this goddamned brat out of my yard. Get out of here, all of ya, I don’t want to see you near this house again.” He stormed to his back door then slammed it shut behind him.

Grace started to jump up and down, “Bruiser, you’re coming home with me! Yay!” She threw her arms around him and hugged him, rocking from side to side.

Mrs. Kendell’s eyes widened, her fell mouth open, and she looked at Grace and the neighbour, her head shaking back and forth, “Oh no, Grace, no, you can’t take this dog home.”

Grace stomped her foot. “He said I could have him. The man said it was okay!”

The neighbour weighed in, “Bruiser is a very nice dog, ma’am. He doesn’t have much of a life, tied up back here day in and day out. He’d be better off somewhere else.” She smiled at Grace encouragingly.

Mrs. Kendell shot her a look that said don’t say another word.

But that was all Grace needed to hear. She unclicked the chain from Bruiser’s collar and he jumped up, freed from bondage and boredom. Grace fell to the grass as he stood over her, his drool soaking her dress. She giggled and wiped it away and rubbed it off on his massive chest as he licked her face again.

“Your father is not going to let you keep that dog, Grace. He already told you, ‘NO MORE PETS’ and he means it! What are we going to tell him?” She was too young to know that the farm was barely scraping by or that a one hundred and forty pound dog would cost as much to feed as one of their cows.

“Grace, honey, you can’t keep him. He’s too big sweetie, please, listen to your mother.”

But Grace would not listen. Oblivious to the anxiety in her mother’s voice, she scampered around the yard, Bruiser in pursuit. The man banged on his kitchen window and scowled, motioning for them to leave with an angry thrust of his hand.

The neighbour gave Mrs. Kendell a supportive smile, “She has her heart set on him. I was wondering what she was doing, knocking on his door like that. She’s a real little spitfire,” she said.

Mrs. Kendell moaned, “You don’t know the half of it.”

A grimace of worry crossed the woman’s face as she reached into her baby buggy and popped her son’s soother back into his mouth. “I don’t think you should leave Bruiser here after this. I would be afraid that asshole would hurt him now.” Her eyes implored Mrs. Kendell to take pity on the dog who would suffer the consequences of her daughter’s impudence.

Mrs. Kendell sighed then groaned, “C’mon Grace, grab him by the collar, let’s put him in the back of the truck. We’ll have to see what your father says.”

Grace grabbed the ball and skipped out of the yard, the dog trotting behind her. As he jumped up into the back of the truck Grace climbed up with him.

“You’re not riding back there,” her mother scolded. Grace scrambled up into the passenger’s seat and told Bruiser to hold on tight and not jump out because he’d be home soon. Mrs. Kendell started the truck, shaking her head, dreading what her husband would say when he saw what she’d helped Grace bring home.

Bruiser’s story made the rounds and everyone remarked on the insolence of that little girl who had the nerve to interfere in a man’s right to treat his animals as he saw fit. In the two years since she had rescued him, the Kendell’s farm became known for its collection of salvaged pets. As its reputation spread, people began taking it for granted.

* * *

Fetch returned to Grace with the tennis ball as the terriers yapped their way up the drive and London pawed her lunchbox for leftovers. But Bruiser did not budge. He let out a gentle woof and Grace turned.

Woof. Bruiser looked at the ditch that ran alongside the dirt road. Woof.

“What is it?”

Woof. Bruiser trotted to the ditch then sat. Woof.

Grace ran to it and saw a burlap bag quivering on one side. Thrown from a car speeding by the farm earlier that day, Bruiser had pulled it from the water, rescuing its captives from drowning. He’d left it in the mud until his saviour came home and would know what to do.

She started to haul it out of the mud. Bruiser helped, putting his large soft mouth on the knot and gently backing up until the sodden bag lay beside the road. London and Fetch barked and circled Grace and Bruiser as a weak whimpering escaped the soaking bag.

Puppies!” Grace squealed. “Someone brought us puppies!”

The bag was too wet to untie its knot. She tried lifting it but it leaked filthy water on her white shoes, splattering her lacy socks with sludge. Grace struggled to lift the bag then told Bruiser to lay down. She hauled it up onto his massive back.

“Okay boy, you’ll have to help me carry them up to the barn.”

She walked beside Bruiser, holding it steady. As they came up the drive, Grace’s father saw them. His daughter appeared to be escorting something, and when he recognized the label on the burlap bag he cursed.

Carrie!” he bellowed, “Come see what your daughter has dragged home now!”

Carrie came out of the house drying her hands on a tea towel and hurried towards Fitz. When she saw Grace and company she groaned, “Oh Jesus, no, not more.”

“Mom, look, puppies!”

Carrie turned to her husband as he snarled, “The barn is bursting, goddamn it. When is she going to learn she can’t save all the animals in the world?”

Grace was so joyous, so determined, her mother shook her head at father and daughter and clasped her tea towel over her face.

Grace lifted the lever on the barn door. She had used a sharp knife to scratch The Sanctuary into the massive double gate. From inside arose a cacophony of barks and mews, moos and baas. Grace was welcomed into her own world, one where everyone loved her and no one ever made her cry.

“I’ve had enough, Carrie. Enough! We can’t afford this,” he hollered at his wife, who was mopping her forehead with the tea towel and looking up into the heavens for guidance.

“She’s becoming the bloody Patron Saint of Dogs,” he cursed ominously.

Chapter 2 – In The Dog House

“You’re going to be in the dog house when you get home,” Grace teased the Jack Russell attached to Jules’ collar.

They marched him down the boulevard to the address on the runaway’s tag. She stopped at a gate between two buildings set back from the street. They were connected by a glass atrium but each building was fenced off from the other. The bars were tightly spaced to keep intruders out, Grace assumed, until a Border Collie raced around the side of the building and began herding them up the path. He barked and hopped and shooed them towards the door.

“Nice dog fence,” she said, “designed to keep Little Mr. AWOL here from busting out, I bet.” The runaway pulled and strained towards the door but, anchored to Jules, could not tow her any faster than she was willing to go.

The grass on the left side of the building was worn and stained yellow. Like a twister board, it was littered with green tennis balls, red toys and knobby bones. Stainless-steel water bowls glinted in the sun near a sliding glass door. An old greying Retriever snored in the shade of a lilac tree. Flies buzzed around a pile of poop and over a trash can. Tall grasses and wildflowers encircled the yard but were trampled. Mature trees lined the broad path but swayed in the breeze.

On the other side, birds swooped down from their branches to dive-bomb the squirrels raiding their feeders. Grace glimpsed a tabby cat hunched in the grass, its head low and its haunches up. Shifting from paw to paw, it tensed, ready to spring. It crept towards a blue jay, paused, then crept further. Suddenly it lunged and almost reached the feeders before the line on its collar came to a sudden end, snapping it back. An elderly woman began pulling in the line as she hauled the cat towards her like a fisherman reeling in his catch.

The right wing stood in immaculate contrast to the left. It was neatly trimmed, with thick green grass edged by flowerbeds and garden plots displaying hand-painted ceramic signs by “Alberta’s Garden of Eden” and “Fred’s Fresh Tomatoes.” It had a white-washed gazebo, trellis tables and chairs, and a croquet set laid out along the end.

The cat lady looked up, curling her lip and tsk-tsking Grace and company as they were herded up the steps.

Grace’s finger traced the list of names and entry codes beside the phone until she stopped at Russell, Jack. “Haha,” she laughed, “that’s your Dad’s name on your collar.” The phone beeped politely until a faded voice finally answered.

“Hi, my name is Grace. I’ve got your dog, Mr. Russell.”

He paused in confusion, “You have JR? I thought he was with his walker?”

“He was, but he ran away and I caught him. Can you come out to the lobby or shall I bring him in?”

The door buzzed and Grace stepped into the whalebone atrium, the Canadian flag flying proudly over top. Like a gargantuan rib cage, its beams soared up to join its arching spine. It was a neutral zone people passed through before accessing either the left or right wings. There was no confusing the two camps because the right’s elevators demanded “NO DOGS” in giant letters.

She herded them through a riot door before stopping at the first apartment. JR scratched at the door and clawed the carpet. Before she could knock the door opened a little, and then a little more. JR tried to race inside but Grace stomped on his leash again. An elderly man bent over a walker looked down at JR then up at Grace, Jules and the box of kittens in surprise.

Grace was dressed for the office but covered in dog and cat hair. She was thirty, fair and fit. Her long strawberry hair was tied in a ponytail. The sun had streaked her bangs blond and although she pinned them back, they defied confinement. Her legs were muscled from cycling and walking, and her arms and shoulders were defined by shelter dogs straining their leashes, trying to escape the pound.

“Thank you, Miss. I appreciate you taking the trouble to bring him home.”

“I’m just glad he made it home safely.”

“He’s an absolute devil,” he said, then ruffled the little rascal’s fur and unhooked his leash. The dog bolted inside. Grace shifted the box of kittens in her arms.

“Where did you find him?”

“He was running out of the park into traffic. Almost got hit by a car – he’s a very lucky pooch. Traffic stopped for the light so I was able to grab him. He’s okay, though.”

“And where is the man I hired to walk him?”

The phone began ringing so he said, “Come in, please.”

Grace held the door as he turned his walker, taking careful steps with his rubber soled slippers across the beige carpet. His blue cotton pajamas were crisply ironed and looked so comfortable Grace would have worn them all day. He had huge hands and a full head of white hair and would have stood over six feet if it wasn’t for his stoop. Mr. Russell lowered himself into a recliner by the sliding doors. It was a comfy spot overlooking the left lawn where he could watch the dogs cavort. As he settled in JR jumped up on his lap

He picked up the phone, “Yes? Yes, this is quite the surprise. I thought he was safe with you.” Mr. Russell listened then said, “He’s here now, seems okay. A woman just brought him back.”

Grace heard the tinny voice pleading its case. She wondered if he was accusing her of kidnapping JR for a reward – the papers were filled with stories of the latest dognappings. She pursed her lips and looked down at Jules, who looked up and licked her lips, hoping for an edible reward.

“Really? Well, he is kind of particular about people, and he didn’t seem to like your other dogs much, so that’s no surprise.” He rolled his eyes at Grace.

“Yes, she’s still here. Call me back tonight, will ya?” He was shaking his head as he hung up.

“I saw you coming up the walk but didn’t realize that was JR with you. I thought he was with that damned dogwalker,” he said, waving Grace towards the chesterfield.

She put the kittens down then went and sat on the flower-patterned sofa. Jules settled at her feet. With a snarl and a yap, JR jumped off Mr. Russell’s lap, charging at the intruder, barking and snapping in defense of his territory. Jules jumped up but JR leaped up and bit her nose. She shook her head then dodged the next bite.

That’s enough,” Grace growled. She poked him sideways to throw him off balance then stared him down again. JR dropped his tail, rolled onto his back submissively, and with his front paws dangling, averted his eyes.

“Good boy. Okay, go lay down.” She pointed towards Mr. Russell’s chair. JR jumped up, ran to his master and lay at his feet, but he kept his eyes on Jules. He raised his lip and sneered at her, a cuckold in his own home. Grace apologized but stuttered to a stop when she saw the look on the old man’s face.

“You have a way with dogs, Miss. I have never, ever seen JR listen to anybody like that.”

“He knows a real alpha dog when he meets one,” she said and laughed.

“I was given JR as a Christmas present two years ago because they thought I was getting lonely,” he harrumphed, “but he’s quite the handful.”

“They chose a Jack Russell because my name is Jack Russell, you see. They thought that’d be cute. But he thinks he’s the Jack Russell that owns this place and everyone in it. I sent him to obedience school but he didn’t learn anything.”

“Dogs should never be given as presents, especially not a Jack Russell. It’s a dominant breed that needs experienced owners.” She felt bad for him, stuck in a situation he hadn’t gotten himself into.

“Is this your first dog?”

“First one with a mind of its own,” he said and slapped his knee.

“I like his name.”

“We didn’t have any children, Gertie and I, so I named him Jack Russell Junior, kind of a joke, you know, like he was our son.” He looked at his dog wistfully.

“I shortened it to JR so it didn’t confuse people because when someone called him, I’d answer. Then we tried Junior, but he didn’t like that. But JR stuck.”

“Is your wife here? Gertie, is it?” Grace asked, looking around. Mr. Russell looked so sad so suddenly that Grace clapped her hand over her mouth.

“No, no, Gertie is gone now, she died four years ago this Christmas.” He turned to an old black and white photo of an ethereal woman taken in the 50s. She looked up and to the left, towards the light. There was a hesitation in her slight smile and gravity in her eyes.

He turned back to Grace, “I have a woman – Lana — who cooked and cleaned and took care of Gertie before she got too bad. Since I broke my hip, Lana’s been living here again until I’m back on my feet, without this damned thing.” He waved at the walker standing sentinel beside his chair. “Her and her fiancé gave him to me, but I think she regrets it now, especially after my hip.”

“How did you break it?”

Mr. Russell nodded at JR. “He’s terrible for pulling on the leash. They didn’t teach him anything at obedience school. I was walking him back from the park, we hit a patch of ice and I went down.” He looked down at his dog then shook his head.

“I had to stay in a seniors’ home for my rehab. I didn’t think I’d ever get out alive. I hated it there, it was a miserable place — all those old people abandoned by their families, waiting to die. I don’t know how kids these days can dump their parents in those places. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have children, they might have left me there.”

Grace gulped. She wondered what Mr. Russell would think if he knew she was guilty of it herself.

Looking at JR, he grumped then motioned to the walker, “Now I can’t walk him with this thing, which I hate. JR hates it too. He tries to get away from it, so he pulls and goes too fast. I can’t keep up with him anymore. If I tie him to it he pulls it away from me, and if I hold the leash he pulls and I’m afraid I’ll go down again.”

He rubbed the stubble on his chin, “I hired those Alpha Dogs thinking that would solve my problem,” then nodding at Grace pronounced, “but obviously not.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Russell, but obedience school doesn’t train dogs, it trains people. It should teach them how to be a pack leader, give commands and understand how a dog thinks. Obedience school teaches you how to teach your dog, not the other way around.”

Mr. Russell puffed up his cheeks then exhaled in a gust. “Guess I didn’t pass that class.”

“Don’t feel bad, it couldn’t have been a good school. Most people don’t understand how to raise a dog. They treat them like they’re children – but you can’t ask a dog what he wants or else he’ll think he’s the boss. Next thing you know, the dog is trying to run your life because you’ve made him think he’s the leader of the pack.”

“I think you just hit the nail on our heads,” he said. “Lana spoils him and he’s running us ragged. JR barks and she jumps right up to get him whatever he wants.”

He looked up at the sound of keys at the door. “Speak of the devil.”

Lana came in, lugging grocery bags. She stopped in the foyer when she saw Grace.

“Hi,” she said, pausing in front of the kittens. “What have we got here?” She went into the kitchen, dumped the bags on the counter, then returned to the cats. “Look how tiny they are, their eyes aren’t even open. How old are they?”

Grace lifted one out and put it in the palm of her hand. “I think they’re about two weeks, give or take a day. They were separated from their mother. ”

She stroked the little orange cat as Jack made the introductions. Lana put it back in the box and gently picked up another. She was in her thirties, a pretty blond with an easy smile and a warm, comforting manner that made her a natural at caring for the elderly.

“I can’t believe JR let your dog into the apartment. We can’t have people over to visit and bring their dog anymore, he’s so territorial.” JR looked at Lana then sighed before putting his chin on his paws and closing his eyes.

“Is it because your dog is so big, is that why JR didn’t run her out of here?”

Mr. Russell guffawed, “Oh he tried, Lana, he tried. He even bit Jules but she wouldn’t take him on, just turned the other cheek. Grace has a way with dogs, you just watch her. She brought JR home today when he ran away from that damned dogwalker you recommended.”

Lana’s jaw fell, “JR got away? I’m so sorry, this is all my fault.” She put her hand up to her mouth, “I never know what he’ll do — what are we going to do with him?”

“Say, do you train dogs?” Mr. Russell asked, “or just people?”

“I’m not a dog trainer, but I’ll work with dogs and their owners sometimes, mostly for friends though.”

“What is it that you do?”

Grace winced, “Nothing, now. I was a researcher at a law firm but they fired me this morning.”

They watched Grace with curious expressions as she explained, “It was my fault — they told me to stop bringing the kittens in. I should have called in sick today. They dehydrate so quickly at this age and need to be fed every three hours, which takes an hour…” She trailed off and rubbed Jules’ head, as if for luck.

“What kind of dog is Jules?” Mr. Russell asked.

She stood, as if on cue, and wagged her tail. She was tall and had long legs, ears that flopped forward, and a glorious tail that curled up and back so that its tip touched her spine and bounced as she walked. Black with touches of brown, her forehead and muzzle were tapered and her body was long and lean and trim. Jules resembled a racehorse, built for speed.

“They said she was a Rottweiler-Shepherd — she turned out nicely for a mutt.”

Lana was puzzled, “I thought Rottweilers didn’t have tails?”

“They’re usually docked at birth, but it’s mutilation as far as I’m concerned,” Grace said. “Originally, they were cart horses so their tails were cut off so they wouldn’t get caught in the wheels. But it’s still the breed standard.

“How old is she?” he asked.

“She’s four now — I found her when she was seventeen weeks old, playing in traffic, just like JR. Our children like to live dangerously,” she said, winking at Mr. Russell.

“It was Christmas and I was delivering flyers for my dogwalking business. I could see her up ahead, this skinny puppy, eating garbage on the road. I was afraid she’d get hit by a car so I tried to catch her but she was too skittish. That flushed her home, though.”

“The kid who answered the door told me it was his sister’s, but she’d moved away. When I asked who was taking care of her, he said ‘no one.’ Can you imagine? A beautiful puppy like that, left to roam?”

“She had worms and fleas so they wouldn’t let her inside. When they tied her up she barked so much they had to let her loose. He said no one would adopt her so they were going to take her to the pound, where I knew she’d be put down.”

“So you took her?”

“Damn right I took her. They offered me the rest of her food but it was an adult discount brand that didn’t even have a veterinary seal. It wasn’t fit to be eaten, especially not by a fast growing, large breed like Jules.”

Hearing her name again Jules called, “Mmrrrmmm.”

“Okay, we should be going,” Grace stood to leave but Mr. Russell insisted they stay for lunch. She froze.

“Oh, are you a vegetarian?” Lana asked. “It’s okay, we’re only having grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.” Grace seemed relieved to have avoided the question.

As Lana headed into the kitchen, Mr. Russell asked her where she found the kittens. Like most seniors, he didn’t meet many younger people, so he peppered her with questions, curious about this dog lady who JR had dragged home.

“They were abandoned in Rowntree.”

He grunted as Grace told him how she’d found them and was returning to the same spot every night, hoping to catch the mother.

“Aren’t you scared of that area? Taxis won’t go in there, I hear. What’s a nice girl like you traipsing around back alleys for? And why aren’t you scared of being out at night like that?”

Grace chuckled and pointed at Jules, “Meet my head of security. People cross the road when they see us coming. Ain’t no one going to mess with a ninety pound Rottweiler, no matter how strung out they are.”

“So what were you doing in a back alley that time of night?”

Grace nodded at the kittens, “There are a lot of strays in Rowntree. I feed them, and if I can catch them, I take the females in to get fixed and keep an eye out for anyone that’s sick.”

“That must cost you a pretty penny.”

“I take them to a friend of mine who’s a vet, then I re-release them. I volunteer at his hospital in exchange for discounts on check-ups and medication.”

“What will you do now that you’ve lost your job?”

She shrugged, “I haven’t thought about that yet.”

“What happened to your dog walking business? Can you try that again?”

Grace shook her head, “I doubt it. It takes a long time to build up clientele enough to pay the bills. For a while there I was taking part time jobs, but I ended up racing around town on my lunch hour, trying to take care of everyone, and wasn’t doing either job very well.”

“I’ve been paying Alpha Dog $140 a week to take JR out once a day. You won’t need many clients at that rate. You should try starting your business again, maybe offer some of that people training to folks like Lana and me. Why don’t you leave me your number, I know a few who might need someone like you.”

Grace’s face lit up, “Sure, that would be awesome. Thank you.”

“I have friends in the building with pets. People don’t get away much because they’re particular about who they leave minding their critters.”

Grace nodded in agreement then said, “I can pet sit too.” She started to feel hopeful — maybe this wasn’t the end of her life in the city afterall.

“This is quite the complex,” she said. “You have separate areas for cats and dogs — it’s like pet heaven.”

“We nicknamed this The Dog House,” and he nodded at the right wing, “and that we call The Cat House. Dog people and cat people don’t like to mix too much. Cat people are always uppity they’ll get eaten,” he said, then chortled.

“We got everyone separated into the two wings — which ruffled feathers — but it turned out in the end. They have their own elevator and a yard for their cats, and we have ours, so it works most of the time.” It wasn’t quite that simple, but in a nutshell it was true.

Lana called them to lunch then leaned over to put JR’s bowl down. Grace told her to wait but JR jumped up, put his paws on the bowl and forced it down. Some of the kibble rolled across the floor as JR chased it and ate it up.

“Sorry Lana, but it’d be a good idea to wait and feed JR when you’re done.”

Lana’s mouth formed an O.

Mr. Russell chuckled and said, “Lana, dear, I think our lessons have begun. Put the bowl back on the counter, will ya?”

“They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch – so why don’t I give you some advice while we eat?” Grace offered.

Jack nodded, but the little dictator barked and pawed at them, indignant at the turn of events. When he harassed Grace she’d make him lie down, but as soon as she turned away he’d pester the others. She told them to ignore him.

“Only pack leaders eat first — if JR is going to recognize his proper place, he has to eat last,” she began.

Lana blurted, “But he always eats with us.”

“To be the top dog, you need to act like the top dog. JR has to earn his keep. Before you give him anything, tell him to sit or shake a paw — only after he obeys you can he eat.”

She turned to Mr. Russell, “Start initiating affection — next time JR jumps up on your lap without an invitation, shoo him off — he needs to learn that he can’t demand your attention.”

Mr. Russell raised an eyebrow, “Easier said than done.”

“It’s best if you only tell JR something once — if he doesn’t do it the first time, make him do it. And always praise him when he obeys as positive reinforcement.”

“I see what you mean by training the humans.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight.”

“So what was the name of your dog walking business?” Mr. Russell asked.

Dog Gone It!

He slapped his leg, “Ha! I like it! Where’d you get that old saying?”

“From It’s A Wonderful Life. It was Jimmy Stewart’s favourite curse. I wanted something fun,” she said. “But getting customers wasn’t easy. When I couldn’t pay the rent I had to ask an old friend for a job at his law office, where I got fired from this morning.”

“Listen, I think I need to have a talk with those Alpha people. JR doesn’t like them, and I like you. And he listens to you, which is more than I can say about anyone else. I wouldn’t mind giving you a try. Can I call you later? I might ask you to come back tomorrow. “

Grace grinned.

“It’s time I started being the boss around here again,” he said as he slurped his soup.

* * *

They’d left her bike at the office so Grace and Jules walked home. She detoured through Rowntree hoping that, if she returned the kittens to the scene of the crime, they might get lucky.

From inside a townhouse a cat began to caterwaul. The mother had been trying to get out every night but her owner kicked her away from the door, snarling, “Get out of my sight!” He was angry she’d had another litter. It never occurred to him that it was his responsibility to get his cat fixed.

Because she could smell her kittens approaching the mother would not stop wailing. She returned to the door brazenly, keening louder. Heavy with milk, she scratched and clawed at it, trying to reach her children. When the door finally opened she dodged a dropkick then raced down the steps, following their scent. She hissed to a stop in front of Jules, arching her spine, her fur standing on end.

“Jules, go lie down,” Grace said, her heart bursting. She slowly lifted the box’s lid but the mother spat. “You’re welcome,” she chuckled.

Tears came to her eyes as she watched her put her front paws on the edge of the box and peer inside. Sensing Mom, the kittens began mewing urgently. She jumped into the box then touched her nose against each little face. But she kept searching for the other two.

Grace started to cry, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry about the others. I didn’t find them in time.”

The mother turned around in the box then settled herself. She lay on her side and the kittens scrambled over each other to find her nipples. She seemed as relieved as their saviour should have been.

Grace cried until she was spent. She felt better but not victorious. Sad and happy, guilty and triumphant, conflicting emotions turned end-over-end inside of her in the seesaw pattern that characterized her life.

She lifted the box with a grimace. Although heavier now, it had become a lighter burden. But as she carried them home she worried — between her own cat, the five she was sheltering and now the new mother, she was one cat over the by-law’s limit.

Grace lifted her chin and carried on. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d packed pets to the rafters – she’d been doing it since she was eight.

Chapter 1 – Prologue & The Runaway

The View From Above

I’ve met a few saints since I died and most of them remind me of Grace.

That stubborn devotion to their cause is as inflexible as the ties that bound them to the stake while the flames tickled their feet. They’ll suffer for the sins of a world they cannot change, and sacrifice their lives for all they hold dear, making fools of themselves in the process. Dead fools.

I first heard about Grace when she was a child, from some mutual friends. Even then, we could see her determination. I began following her a few years ago when I arrived here and needed a distraction from my regrets. I was selfish — I refused to bear children for my husband, who saved me from evil. Now I see him down there, left to mourn and die alone, and want to atone.

When I rewound the story of Grace’s life, we discovered a phoenix emerging from tragedy. It was then that I started writing this addition to the Lives of the Saints. Grace isn’t a martyr in the Christian tradition, but one who prays for all of God’s creatures and tries to deliver them from evil. She does what she can and lets Karma do the rest.

History has had its share of saints who lit a flame for mercy and enlightenment that was dowsed by ignorance. As society evolves, so does its view of people once dismissed as lunatics and extremists. You’ll see in Grace that same kind of craziness, a habit of talking to animals, and a self-righteous bent that turns people against her — and is driving her to doom.

St. Roch bristles when I call her The Patron Saint of Dogs but I know he’s watching over Grace. Divine intervention may be frowned upon up here, and I’m no angel, but — on the day she is fired — you just might notice his fingerprints on the screen…

 

The Runaway

“I told you Friday not to bring that in again,” Charles Burns pointed to her backpack. “I’ve been patient because I know what you’ve been through, Grace. But this is a law office, not an animal shelter.”

A weak mew escaped the backpack.

“I let you bring Jules to work because she’s a good girl. She’s quiet and well behaved, so there weren’t any objections. But you can’t bring newborn kittens in, too. We’re getting complaints about the smell – it lingers.” The scent of urine and sour, regurgitated milk hung in the air between them.

He ran his manicured fingers through his greying hair then adjusted his cufflinks. “The partners have had enough. Take them home and leave them there or we’ll have to let you go.”

Grace’s first thought was not for herself but her dependents, Jules and Psycho Kitty, and she began to panic.

Charles glanced at the big black dog sitting beside her. Jules put her snout on Grace’s lap then nudged it under her palm. As she began rubbing Jules’ ears, her breathing slowed and deepened. Grace thought about praying for salvation but knew they were doomed.

“I tried Charlie, but my neighbour bailed on me at the last minute. They need to be bottle fed every three hours or they could dehydrate and die like the others. Give me a few more days, c’mon.”

He set his jaw and shook his head.

“Is this Andy’s handiwork?”

“It was discussed and we concurred. Do yourself a favour and let me call in animal services and have them taken to the shelter.”

“Over my dead body.”

“Don’t make a martyr of yourself, Grace.”

“I’m not letting them die, too. The shelter will euthanize them — they’ll say they’re too young to survive without their mother. I found them, I saved them, and I’ll take care of them until I find them a good home.”

“Then hire a pet sitter. You need this job — you can’t take care of your pets without a roof over your head.”

“They aren’t pets, they’re my family. And I can’t leave them with anyone because all I do is obsess when I’m away that…”

Not now, not now, don’t think of that now…

“…something terrible is happening at home.”

He looked at Grace with pity. “Speaking of home and family, are you ever going back?”

She looked at the wall and shook her head.

“Are you still seeing a psychiatrist?”

“Why?”

“Because this obsession you have with saving animals has gotten worse. We’ve known each other for years — we’re still your friends. Lex is worried about you. She’s always asking me how you are. Call her — you need someone to talk some sense into you.”

Grace gritted her teeth, afraid to respond in case she exploded.

“Take the kittens home and you can keep your job.”

“No,” she said, gripping the backpack.

“Lex told me you’d do this.” Charles sighed, picked up the phone and dialed zero. “We’re ready,” he said, then dropped the receiver into its cradle and wiped his hands.

“You should consider going back to law school and studying animal rights again. I was disappointed you dropped out – we all were.”

“I wasn’t meant to be a lawyer. I was put on this earth to help animals, not avenge their death.”

“Then get a job at the shelter.”

“It’s too depressing. I can’t handle seeing so many dogs and cats put down for lack of a home.”

He sighed in exasperation. “You’re your own worst enemy, you know that, don’t you?”

She knew he was right but refused to admit it. Grace stared back at him until he couldn’t stand the silence any longer and looked away.

“I hired you as a researcher – over Andy’s objections — because you’re smart, resourceful and good in a crisis. I’ll give you a reference based on that. But whatever you do next, I suggest you start leaving the sanctimonious crap at home. It didn’t make you any friends here.”

“Listen, I’m not going to apologize for speaking up when I hear someone’s about to declaw their cat without considering the long term effects of –” but Charles held up his hand to silence her.

“You need to consult a lawyer before signing these.” He pushed the Termination of Employment and Benefits papers towards her then stood. “Don’t sacrifice yourself for your cause, no matter how noble you think it is. It’s already cost you one life.”

“Screw you,” she hissed. Grace grabbed his pen, signed both documents, then threw it down.

Jules padded to the door, pulling her by the leash that looped around her wrist.

Charles went to the door but Grace beat him to it. She flung it open then jumped back in alarm. Security stood there. A pompous chest barred the way, bearing a tin badge below a pair of pretentious epaulets. A massive belt encircled his massive waist with umpteen keys dangling from it, proclaiming his self-importance. Little leather cases were attached to the belt, hiding God knows what devices to restrain disturbers of the peace until the real police arrived.

Two more guards and an animal control officer stood behind him. One was holding two boxes from the archives that were overflowing with bowls, pet food and toys, threatening to break open and make another mess of everything.

Fired. In disgrace.

She turned on Charles. “What the hell is this?”

“Andy insisted,” he said, but did not look her in the eye.

The guards stepped forward. Animal control reached for Jules’ leash to escort her off the premises but Grace jerked her arm away, “Don’t touch her.”

Jules’ chest expanded as the fur on her spine stood on end. She emitted a deep grrrrr that raised the hair on the back of everyone else’s neck.

“We’ll leave in peace but don’t do anything stupid. She won’t hurt anyone unless she thinks they’re trying to hurt me.”

They looked at Charles. He nodded.

“Puppy come.” Grace held her head high as Jules fell into a heel beside her. Two guards darted in front of them as they made their way down the hall, trailed by animal control wielding a choke stick and the guard carrying her personal effects. Charles followed them. Everyone in the office stood and turned as they passed. The kittens mewed for their mother.

One of the partners came to his door and sneered, “It’s about time. Good riddance.”

Grace turned to face her childhood nemesis, “Andy Boyles, you’re a bully. You cheated on the LSATs. You bought papers when we were in university. And you’re screwing both Cheryl and Jennifer.”

The junior clerks jerked their haughty heads towards Andy then sized each other up, their faces livid.

“They’ll be comparing notes with your wife during the separation proceedings. Good luck,” she winked.

Bitch!” Andy shouted as they reached Burns and Boyles’ reception. “They should’ve kept you in the insane asylum.”

As they waited for the elevator, Grace looked back at Charles and Andy. “Do you know the Karma Curse?”

Charles’ eyebrows raised then furrowed. Andy put his hands on his hips.

“May all that you have done to us come back upon you — nothing more, nothing less.”

The whispers rose to a crescendo that peaked with a thunderclap as Charles retreated to his office and slammed the door.

* * *

They walked Grace, Jules and the kittens to the sidewalk and left them on a bench outside the office tower’s property line. It was ten o’clock, break time, and the mews were urgent. The fake-fur-lined backpack was shaking as the kittens crawled over each other in search of a nipple.

Drawing formula into two eyedroppers, Grace gently lifted a pair of two-week old orange cats out of her pack. Turning them onto their back, she laid them in her lap. Their eyes were still closed as their front paws kneaded her hands while they suckled.

Grace bent over them, purring and nuzzling the kittens as their mother would have. She blew into their tiny ears until they twitched and then tickled their toes with her pinkies, watching their minute claws stretch. She checked them over from top to bottom, satisfied they’d survived the morning oblivious to their fate.

She had found them in a box beside a dumpster a few days earlier. Six kittens abandoned on a chilly, late summer’s night behind a row of derelict townhouses. Overgrown with weeds and littered with rusty cars, their yards were cluttered with vandalized bikes and broken toys. The gaping fences and crooked stairs were an ugly reminder of failed urban renewal projects and employment retraining programs.

Two of the cats were already dead by the time she discovered them. The other four were crying for their mother and crawling over each other to find her. Weak from dehydration and hunger, they fell back upon their dead siblings before struggling up to try again. Frantic, Grace kept calling for their mother so she could keep her with her kittens — they needed the antibodies in her milk at that fragile age.

She had taken off her sweater and laid it over the kittens to keep them warm. Shivering in her bra, she had picked up the sodden cardboard box and, with a wail and a curse, strode home with them as fast as she could, Jules trotting beside her, her leash flying free in the wind.

The kittens had improved since she’d found them, but they were still in a delicate state. After she fed the first two, she rubbed their bottoms where their mother would have licked them to stimulate their vital organs so they’d pee and poo. She pulled paper towel from her backpack and wiped them clean, then washed them with Wet Wipes until they were damp and smelled like baby powder.

They fell asleep, their tiny bellies distended with milk, their purrs soft and contented as they snuggled up to each other. She emptied one of the banker’s boxes and placed the kittens in it. Then she repeated the process with their siblings. Finally, she pulled the fake-fur out of her backpack, cleaned it, then scrubbed out her pack.

Jules sat beside her, watching, waiting, keeping an eye on everyone and everything. Business people hurried by, straining their necks as they passed this curious scene. Trucks waited in the turning lane to the loading docks, cussing at the drivers who would not let them turn in but were pulling forward, blocking their way instead. Traffic was constant, horns honked. Pedestrians cursed drivers turning right on the red, nosing through the crosswalk crowded with sneaker-clad admins.

Mmrrmmm,” Jules murmured, shifting her weight from her left paws to her right, raising and lowering each eyebrow and calling her, “Mmrrmmm.”

Grace looked up from her labours, “You can’t be hungry yet, can you?”

Jules panted, her long tongue hanging out and licking her lips before breaking into an open-mouthed, doggy smile. “Thirsty? Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

She rummaged around until she found a water bottle, a bowl and a couple of biscuits. Jules wolfed them then drained the bowl, licking around the rim for a taste of breakfast. “So, got any ideas how we are going to get ourselves – and all this stuff – home?”

It would take an act of God now to deliver them from her self-induced misfortune, Grace thought. No job. No rent. No health benefits. There were food banks, but not for dogs or cats. There were free walk-in clinics, but not for Jules or Psycho Kitty. The kittens and the five cats she fostered were funded by the animal rescue group where she volunteered. They might slip in a bit of extra food, but it wouldn’t be enough to feed a ninety pound dog.

Jules panted in the late-summer sun. Her black fur gleamed now, a far cry from what it had been when Grace had rescued her. She looked into Jules’ eyes, amazed by the kindred soul she recognized there.

Most people scoffed at her belief that if we have souls, animals do too. She’d suggest they read The Life of Pi and urged them to look beyond the dogma. Animals display love and compassion and mourn the loss of family members, much like humans. They have a will to live and an ability to survive and adapt to inhuman conditions, accepting sanctuary and friendship in the most unlikely places.

Her last boyfriend had laughed at her. “You’ve got to be kidding — animals have souls? That’s just a fantastical movie based on a boring book. Besides, it was allegorical, Pi doesn’t really drift across the ocean with a Bengal tiger. Get serious,” he’d scorned.

“No cab will pick us up, not with you with us, you big silly puppy,” she joked, rubbing her palm against Jules’ forehead. Grace put all the supplies she could fit into her pack, slung it over her back and picked up the box of kittens.

Then Jules spun around, turning towards the park, her ears twitching as she homed in on the sounds of shouting and a chorus of barks.

Grace looked over the traffic towards the park’s gate. There was a break between cars just then and she glimpsed a Jack Russell terror – a terrier – a breed of dog as independent as they were hell-on-four-paws. The dog was running up the path towards the road, its leash trailing behind it. A harried dogwalker was trying to chase him but was impeded by five other dogs.

When the runaway reached the gate and started to squeeze under it, Grace dropped the kittens and her pack on the bench. She barked, “STAY! WATCH!” at Jules, then raced into the street to save the dog before it was run over.

Jules seemed torn between following her mother and obeying, but she stayed, shifting from paw to paw, yipping and calling a warning to the Jack Russell to stop or die. It looked up and paused in time to miss a taxi racing for the light.

When the light turned red, cars began slowing down. Grace dodged between them, leaning this way and that, trying to find the little troublemaker, dead or alive.

A car had stopped on his leash and the dog was trapped. He was darting under and around the wheel, straining backwards to slip his collar off.

The driver of the car looked startled by the sight of Grace bearing down on him.

“BACK UP!” she commanded the driver.

The terrified dogwalker stood on the sidewalk, desperately looking up and down the street as his dogs barked and lunged at the traffic. Grace shouted, “He’s under here.”

The driver rolled down his window. “What the hell happened? Did I hit something?”

“There’s a dog trapped under your car. Back up slowly, but do it fast.” Grace tried to reach under the car but couldn’t grab the dog’s leash.

Panicking, the driver struggled to get the car into reverse. His wife dug her nails into his arm. “What did you kill this time?” She rubbernecked around the street, glimpsing the horrified dogwalker watching them. “You hit a dog! Ohmygod! Another dog! Oh my dear Lord, this car is cursed.”

“The light is changing!”

Horns were blaring, drivers were hollering, the light was green and cars were speeding by on the one lane left open. Children’s noses were pressed up against the windows of a passing school bus, making faces.

Slowly, the car eased into reverse. Unpinned, the Jack Russell tried to run but Grace stomped on his leash as he emerged from under the car. She picked up the squirming dog then held out an arm to stop traffic as she headed back to Jules.

“Thank you!” the dogwalker called. “Wait there, I’ll cross at the lights and meet you.”

As they waited for him, Grace held onto the bucking, indignant terrier under one arm and used her free hand to check his funky collar. It was an imperialist purple decorated with little white bones with a silver dog tag engraved with his breed, address and phone number. He lived on this side of the park.

“Huh, never seen a dog tag with the name of its breed instead of its name or its owner’s name. Stupid. Well, okay Mr. Jack Russell, nice to meet you. This is Jules.” She wiggled his paw to wave at Jules but he snapped at her.

“NO BITE,” Grace growled in a deep voice that ended on a higher note, imitating a canine mother disciplining her pups. She jerked him sideways then stared him down until he looked away and dropped his ears.

“Don’t even think about giving me attitude, little Mister Almost-Roadkill. You’re one lucky pup. You couldn’t have met anyone more dog-friendly than me today.” The dog looked away from her then bared his spiky teeth at Jules.

“Ha ha, very funny. Think you’re tough? Trying to pick a fight with a dog four times your size? Nice try, she’d just ignore a pupsqueak like you. Seriously, dude, the nerve.”

As the dogwalker approached, he struggled to control his pack and untangle their leashes. Grace watched him let go of one handle at a time instead of guiding each dog around the other. Amateur, that must be how the Jack got away, she thought.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the Jack Russell’s leash with a sigh of relief.

When he turned to go back to the park the little dog balked. The dogwalker pulled, but he refused to follow. He started dragging him but the dog locked his knees and his claws scraped along the sidewalk.

The dog put his head down and the collar slipped over his neck. Freed, he turned and ran for home. Grace lunged, tackling him before he could get far. She picked him up and marched back, then took the collar and leash from the dog walker.

“Is his owner home?” When the man nodded she said, “I’ll take him, I’m going that way. You already have more than you can handle.”

“I only have six,” he protested. “That’s not as many as they walk in New York. And I’m within the by-law – I have a license.” She noticed his t-shirt, Alpha Dog Day Care.

“Look, he won’t go with you and he’s already escaped twice. I’ll make sure he gets home.”

As his five remaining dogs tangled his legs, he said, “He’s a pain in the ass, but if I don’t take him back, the old man will wonder…” Then he slumped like an underdog who’d just had his big fat puppy butt whipped by the toughest dog on the block.

Grace put the Jack Russell down, tied his leash to Jules’ collar, then picked up the kittens and headed down the boulevard towards the address on his silver plated bone.

 

© Copyright protected and all rights reserved by the author, Colleen MacDougall

Contact: thepatronsaintofdogs@gmail.com

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