The Adventures of an Author writing about Rescuing Dogs

During my years as a dog walker, I rescued many animals that crossed my path when they were in need of help. Some incidents have made it into the novel. This past Tuesday, I encountered another dog in need.

I was working on The Patron Saint of Dogs when I heard a woman outside calling for help. She was yelling, “Get this dog away from me!”

I looked out the window and saw a stray black dog beside our busy road. He was only trying to say hello to her dog, but she was trying to kick him away. I grabbed my leash, a quick-lock choke chain, and a handful of dog biscuits, then ran down three flights of stairs.

One of the county’s trucks had stopped to assist her but had scared the dog away. He ran farther when he saw me approaching, then was about to cross the street…

I almost panicked but knew I had to calm down so he would calm down. Then I bent over — a half downward-dog — and talked to him sweetly. Once he gave his tail a tentative wag I tossed a cookie near him and kept cooing. He came to me on his own and I put the leash on him – victory!

He gobbled his treat but had no collar or tags.

I brought him up to my apartment, grabbed my phone and coat, then we headed back outside. Was on hold for Animal Services when his owner drove by, looking for the runaway.

They were thrilled to see each other. Once I got Molson into his Dad’s car he covered my face in puppy kisses. It is one of the most rewarding things an animal lover can do — help reunite a lost pet with his owner.

The man told me that Molson, a young Black Lab/Husky cross, had dug his way out of the back yard. I explained that once a dog has successfully escaped, he’ll be eager to do it again because his adventures were a great reward for boredom.

I took the opportunity to give his Dad a lecture about ensuring Molson was wearing a collar and tag at all times. I also explained the importance of getting him microchipped, so he can phone home when lost.

It is vital that when a pet goes astray the Animal Shelter is immediately notified. That way, if he gets sighted, the shelter can provide people calling to report seeing him with his parent’s phone number. Then they’ll get the call to search the last area where he was seen, and hopefully pick up the dog themselves when he’s found. That can save a dog a traumatizing trip to the shelter and its parents the hefty fine.

Molson was a sweet dog who was no harm to the woman screaming for help. Had he been a white fluffy dog, she probably wouldn’t have been as alarmed. But because he was big and black and had no identification, he was treated as a threat.

People are not the only ones who suffer discrimination – dogs do too.

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Chapter 6 – Nemesis³

1995-1997

By junior high, Grace withdrew into the sanctuary and developed a tough exterior that made her harder to hurt.

Her friends urged her to stand up for herself but Grace felt little confidence. “Why do you put up with it?” Lex asked. “Andy only bullies you because his brothers bully him. He hasn’t grown much so they call him pipsqueak now. When I passed their place the other day he was crying because they were calling him a sissy.”

One day when a dogfight broke out, Grace learned how to turn the tables.

Mutt & Jeff were getting old. One of their new rescues was a Jack Russell named Spike, who was good at killing rats. Mutt was the alpha dog in the sanctuary, but Spike was faster and tougher. Mutt kept him in his place — until the day Spike attacked first. He was fierce and relentless and fought Mutt without mercy, refusing to back down. When the other dogs saw that he was the dominant dog, they ganged up on Mutt, too. So he dropped his tail between his legs and rolled over, accepting a lower place in the pack.

On the first day of grade seven, Grace waited by the road. Her anxiety rose with the billowing dust cloud chasing the school bus towards her. She asked her dogs to wish her luck and strode onto the bus, determined as hell.

She homed in on Andy, who was yelling, “Here comes Dog Face!” as she marched down the aisle.

“Gee, Andy, how come you didn’t grow this summer? Shouldn’t you still be on the other bus with kids your own size?”

Everyone hooted and goaded Andy on. When he stood up he was shorter than Grace now and they snickered at the difference. Andy’s face turned red.

Some of the meeker kids were thrilled to see the king of bullies challenged. They cheered her on, laughing at Andy and shouting, “Good one, Grace!”

“Yeah, well, at least I don’t have an ugly dog face,” Andy said.

Before he could say more Grace taunted, “I’d rather have a dog face than be stuck on the kiddie rides at the fair.” The teens howled and urged them on.

“I hear your Mommy still shops for you in the boys’ section.”

“You’re so ugly your only friends are dogs.”

“You’re so short your only friends are midgets.”

Andy clenched his fists. He took a swing at Grace but the bus lurched and he missed. He lost his balance and hung into the aisle, gripping the bar with one hand as he tried to twist himself up. Grace shoved him and he fell to the floor. She put her shoe on his back then said, “You’re so short you make a good footstool.”

The driver looked at her in the mirror then turned back to the road.

She sat in the empty seat behind Andy and shot insults at the back of his head the rest of the way to school, just as he used to do to her. If he retorted, she’d add another barb to her wire fence, biting into him if he tried getting under her skin. The gossip she’d collected about him became her arsenal, and her quick wit was her weapon. Her guilty conscience screamed but she shushed it – she’d had enough.

When they got to school, Andy ran off the bus. After giving her high fives, the others followed him, heckling. When he stood on his toes to read the classroom lists he became the butt of jokes in the milling crowd.

Grace sneered as she passed him and he shot her a vengeful look. She’d made an enemy for life.

Kat and Lex were waiting by the doors and they patted her back. The three girls were starting their new school as nervous as anyone. Although she trusted them, the more she shied away from people, the farther she withdrew from her friends. As they began to revolve around boys and clothes, Grace obsessed about the sanctuary.

As the refugees increased, Mr. Kendell’s tolerance decreased along with his budget for vet bills. One night at dinner, he slammed his huge hand on the table and said enough was enough. “I’m putting a sign on the road saying we’re not taking any more cast-offs.”

“But what if people take them to the shelter and they’re put to sleep?” Tears sprung to Grace’s eyes. “London would have died if he’d gone there. They put everyone down!”

“Not everyone, Grace, you know that,” her mother soothed, patting her hand.

“We can’t afford to feed every unwanted animal in the county. I’ve got a farm to run, not an ark, and my name’s not Noah.”

“Then I’ll pay for them,” Grace cried. “I’ve got the money Nanny gave me, I’ll use that.” She slapped her fork down. “You owe me an allowance. Kat and Lex get them for doing chores but I don’t. You’re no fair.”

“Your allowance is already spent paying for those goddamned mutts,” her father said. “I’ve a mind to take them all to the pound and be done with it.”

“No you wouldn’t, don’t say that Daddy, please don’t take my friends away.” She started to keen, a high-pitched wail that brought London, the only dog allowed in the house, running to her and licking her face.

“Get that dog away from this table,” he thundered. He grabbed his collar, dragged him to the door and hurled London outside. Grace ran after him as her mother sat at the table, looking forlorn.

They ran to the sanctuary and escaped inside. The dogs gathered around her, whining as she cried. Poor old Bruiser limped up. She buried herself in his coat and bawled. He suffered from arthritis and bladder stones and had been to the vet twice that year. Her father resented the bills for a dog who didn’t earn his keep.

When they took him to the vet again her father argued over the bill. Grace approached Mrs. Hoffmeier, the vet’s wife and office manager. They were Kat’s parents and she often slept at their house. They’d grown fond of their daughter’s odd little friend, who spent more time playing with their cat than with Kat.

“Mrs. Hoffmeier, my Dad says we can’t afford Bruiser’s medicine. Can I pay you with my birthday and Christmas money? My grandmother sends me twenty dollars twice a year.”

“That won’t be enough, dear.”

Grace looked embarrassed as she watched her father arguing. She whispered, “I’m afraid my Dad is going to take Bruiser to the pound.” Tears rolled down her face and Mrs. Hoffmeier put her arms around her and said to stop worrying so much.

The next time Grace slept over, she offered to help at the clinic to pay Bruiser’s bills. Dr. Hoffmeier looked skeptical, so she began tossing around ideas as they popped into her head. They sent the girls to watch Xena: Warrior Princess so they could talk. By the time her mother picked her up in the morning, Grace had her first job.

A gulf opened between Kat and Grace that year. With her friend was working for her parents scooping poop and cleaning cages, Kat felt jealous. Her brother was going to take over the practice when he graduated, and Kat felt left out. Sensing the change in their friendship, the Hoffmeiers stayed out of it. By the end of grade seven, the girls stopped seeing each other outside of school. Kat and Lex grew closer as Grace drifted away.

One night, after the vet’s closed and she was waiting for her mother, Grace saw a sign at the shelter. By the time her mother arrived, Grace had disappeared. When she got in the car twenty minutes later, Mrs. Kendell was frantic with worry.

“I’m going to start walking dogs at the pound!” Grace envisioned herself as a saviour to the homeless dogs and cats. She planned to brush them and train them and teach them tricks to help them get adopted.

And so it became a nightly ritual, her mother driving her into town then picking her up two hours later. When her father grumbled about the waste of gas, her mother spent the evening volunteering at the church or visiting seniors at the old age home.

Grace spent Saturdays working while Kat and Lex went to the movies or the diner. “She’s crazy,” Lex said one day when they cycled by Grace, walking a rambunctious dog. They waved at her but didn’t stop, too embarrassed by their friend covered in dog hair and holding a stinky bag of poop.

They used to love playing at Grace’s when a new batch of puppies or kittens arrived. Now they defined cute as The Backstreet Boys instead. Grace had no interest in the boy bands that plastered their walls. Her bedroom was covered with posters of Xena and she envisioned herself Grace: Animal Avenger, who saved pets from the pound and turned their mean owners in to the police.

Andy Boyles kept his distance from Grace throughout grade seven. It wasn’t until the spring of grade eight when he had a growth spurt that he cornered her at school. Grace was alone when he went up behind her and pushed her down. Kat saw him and, at five foot nine, she towered over him. Kat shoved Andy so he head-butted her. Grace jumped him and they grappled until a supervisor broke it up. All three got detentions but Andy fared the worst. Having lost to two girls in a schoolyard brawl, he was ridiculed. After that, he stopped confronting Grace. He had better ideas.

To get her back, Andy brought a jar of grasshoppers to school. He began picking their legs off and laughing as they stumbled around. Grace dived on him, enraged. She began pulling his hair and slapping him and screaming he was an animal abuser. Two teachers had to drag her off.

She sulked in the principal’s office while her parents discussed a suspension. No one cared that Andy was cruel to animals. He had gotten off with just a warning. Grace seethed, feeling unfairly treated and misunderstood.

When she was permitted to return, Andy began regaling his friends with hideous stories of animal cruelty within earshot. Having found Grace’s weak spot, he tested it daily. The yard supervisors watched them warily, ready to step in as crowds formed around their shouting matches, goading someone to strike. Like sadistic spectators at a dogfight, they didn’t care who got hurt, they wanted a show.

By the end of grade eight, Kat and Lex were so embarrassed by their combative friend they began distancing themselves. Grace hid in her sanctuary, disgusted by humans.

That summer, with Bruiser struggling to walk, her father wanted him put down. Grace refused to accept the inevitable. Balking at the cost of euthanasia, her father carelessly said that a bullet would be cheaper. Grace overheard him and screamed in rage. He slapped her and she ran to her room crying, “I hate you! I hate you!”

When she came home from town a few days later, Bruiser wasn’t waiting. She panicked, running around the farm, calling his name. When she found him he was struggling to breath, and became convinced her father had finally done it. When Dr. Hoffmeier arrived and said his heart was failing, she refused to believe it wasn’t her father’s fault.

Grace sat with Bruiser as the vet gave him the injection. His massive head lay on her lap and she stroked him and sang to him as he died. She keened over his body, telling him she would see him again in dog heaven someday. If her father came near them, she would shriek at him to go away.

In the morning, she wanted to dig his grave but a farm hand had to help. Grace chose a spot in the shade by the sanctuary where he used to watch and wait for her bus. She carved, ‘Bruiser, A Good Boy’ on a piece of board and stuck it in the ground.

Grace buried him with his tennis ball and a handful of treats. She said prayers for him then blessed him and lay wildflowers atop his grave. Only her mother, the farm hand and the sanctuary’s dogs and cats attended.

She would not look at her father or share the same room. Her mother crept around the house, the sole occupant of a neutral zone cushioning the two pitched camps. All that summer Grace was depressed and kept losing her temper. About a week after Bruiser died, she went back to work. About two weeks later her troubles began.

One day when she went to the pound to walk dogs she asked for Bandit, her favourite, to be brought out first.

“He’s gone, Grace,” the woman at the counter said.

Lighting up, she cheered that he’d finally been adopted. Then a strangling sound came out of her throat as the attendant shook her head.

“What happened to him?” Grace demanded, her voice rising.

The attendant hesitated.

“What did they do to him?” she shouted.

“They put him down last night dear. Didn’t they tell you? That was his last walk yesterday.”

Grace reacted violently, throwing magazines and adoption forms around the waiting room. She shrieked and cursed and threatened the attendant, then charged at the animal control officers when they raced in to see what was going on. Grace threw anything she could get her hands on at them until the police arrived and restrained her. With her parents’ car following the ambulance, she was taken to the hospital and sedated.

* * *

2013

As they left Dorothy’s, Grace asked Mr. Russell about Fred. He didn’t know what to say about The Dog House’s nemesis without sounding petty, so he stumbled for words.

“Fred is – Fred’s a cat person, and he hates dogs. He heads the tenant’s group over in The Cat House and says dogs are the worst thing that ever happened here,” he said, then grunted.

“Back when Gertie had the Shepherds, he’d get mad if she brought them into the yard if he was there with his cats. They squared off a few times and had words.” He began to get riled up, recounting the start of the feud that divided the two buildings.

“He says our dogs tried to eat his cats. Now Gertie, oh she had a way with dogs, just like you. She didn’t suffer fools, my Gertie, and she called him an old fool once in front of a few people. He hasn’t spoken a civil word to me since,” he said.

“Fred wouldn’t even come to her funeral — how stubborn is that? Some people haven’t had much use for him since. He resents me for that, but it was his own doing.”

When they reached his apartment, Grace soothed Nina. Ready for JR, she stood in front of the Greyhound protectively. Scenting her from beyond the door, JR lunged as soon as Mr. Russell opened it. Grace blocked him then rolled him over.

“What did I tell you about fighting?” JR looked away, dropping his ears and tucking his tail between his legs. She hooked JR to his leash then handed it to Mr. Russell.

Grace led Nina towards the neutral zone and repositioned her so that JR would approach her from the side. Then she told Mr. Russell to relax and walk towards them.

“How do I relax if I’m worrying they’re going to go at each other?”

“If you’re tense they’ll be tense and that’s what causes fights. Just whistle a happy tune.”

Mr. Russell hummed his wedding waltz. Nina relaxed because JR wasn’t coming at her head-on. They sniffed each other cautiously, completing the ritual, and Grace rewarded them with treats. She nodded at Mr. Russell — they were good to go.

“Fred now – you’ll recognize him from his thick glasses. He can’t see anything without them. He’s kind of short and dumpy and walks looking down as if he’s afraid he’s going to step in something. And he always has a pen and a little notebook in his shirt pocket. When you see him, you’ve seen Fred.”

“Now Nina and Fred have had their differences over the years, you see. She’ll growl at him if he stares at her. She’s never actually bit him, just nipped him I think, but as far as Fred is concerned, he’s been mauled. Don’t let them anywhere near each other or we’ll never hear the end of it.”

Grace was watching for the infamous Fred as they exited the atrium then headed down the path. Nina tensed up halfway to the street. Out of the corner of her eye, Grace saw a man standing in a tomato patch. He turned and glared at them through heavy glasses. Nina let out a little woof and looked at Grace as if to say that’s him.

Then he plucked his notebook out of his pocket. He checked his watch for the time then wrote something down. Grace waved and said hello, hoping to avoid making enemies her first week on the job.

He glowered and shouted, “You keep that vicious dog away from me and my cats and my tomatoes, you hear!”

She hurried the dogs away as he hollered, “I’ll be watching you!”

* * *

1997

They kept Grace in the psychiatric ward for two weeks. She was diagnosed as bi-polar and put on a combination of psychotropic medication, which she hated. The drugs made her drowsy and more depressed but they told her it would level out her mood swings.

Anxious and overexcited one day, depressed and hopeless the next, Grace yearned to be like other girls and stop crying over everything. She spent her days looking out the barred windows and shrinking away from anyone who tried to talk to her.

When they locked her in her room at night she understood how the shelter animals felt. Grace knew she’d let her friends down. They’d be missing her and wondering why she never came to see them anymore. She’d been banished. She cried herself to sleep, imagining them lying in their cages too, wondering what would happen to them next.

When she was released, she left silently. Her mother patted her arm as they led her to the car. Her father held his head and back ram-rod straight, ashamed of his troubled daughter.

The dogs were happy to see her back, and Grace cried with joy as they licked her face. But when she looked around for Bruiser, her chest ached. Looking up, she saw his grave and ran to it, bawling. Then she holed herself up inside the sanctuary, where she spent the rest of the summer.

“I’m worried about her, Fitz, aren’t you? She doesn’t seem the same. Does she seem the same to you?” Her mother wrung her hands in her dress.

Grace’s father cursed his wife for letting their daughter get so tied up in her animals. He’d cursed them every day she’d been away. Fitz didn’t understand Grace. He’d heard that teenage girls were like roller coasters, their emotions riding up and down, but even he had to admit she wasn’t normal. She never had been. He winced at the thought that he’d had a hand in her undoing and his pride was hurt. She was the talk of the county again and he hated going to the co-op and hearing the whispers.

By the time Grace began high school they changed her medication. The last combination made her too dopey and unable to concentrate, and her psychiatrist thought she’d need her wits about her in grade nine. The new stuff made her anxious and irritable but they said she’d adapt.

Grace had to see a child psychologist and the weekly sessions were uncomfortable. She was assigned a Children’s Services caseworker to monitor her progress. The exhausted woman visited the farm to review her home life and discuss Grace’s triggers.

Once she started back to school, she’d need to see the guidance counsellor regularly. He had warned her not to get into fights but Grace had already learned that lesson. Violent behaviour had its repercussions.

When she got on the bus the first morning, she felt like a freak. Some of her old classmates were staring at her and a different driver looked her up and down. The bus to the high school was different. It was filled with older students who had no patience for the antics of the minor niners, who they told to sit down and shut up.

Andy Boyles sat in the middle of the bus. As Grace passed him he coughed, “Mental patient,” into his hand. She strode past with her head held high, gripping her purse so tightly her knuckles were white. She was the last person to get off the bus and he was waiting for her as she came down the steps.

“They should have kept you in the nut house, Dog Face.”

Grace elbowed him in the stomach then ran for the doors.

* * *

2013

When they returned from their walk, Grace confirmed her appointments for the week. JR and company would begin their obedience lessons Friday, which she was nervous about starting but didn’t know why. Grace had taken to Dorothy. She made her miss her mother but they were nothing alike, so she didn’t understand it. She thought she’d talk to her psychiatrist about Friday.

She left The Dog House on foot, alone. Grace felt like her right arm was missing when she went anywhere without Jules. She felt insecure without her but still detoured through Rowntree anyway.

As she came up the alley, she saw some moving boxes stacked beside a white van. On the other side of the fence, a young Rottweiler was tied to a stake. His water bowl was empty and there were already three piles of poop ringing his miserly space. He lay as far away from them as he could. The dog was so big and his chain was so short he would have to smell his own excrement baking in the Indian Summer sun.

When he saw Grace near his turf he barked viciously. She stood and watched him with a heavy heart. Pieces of his ears were missing and he had scars on his muzzle and neck. He favoured his left leg because his right wrist had a wound where his dewclaw should be. It looked like it had been torn off but never stitched. He wasn’t neutered.

So she began talking to him in her dog voice, stringing her words together in a jumble, a rich, comical, garbled sound punctuated at the end by little peaks of excitement. Grace sounded just like Jules when she called her Mmrrrmmm.

The Rottweiler cocked his head sideways as she asked him, “AreYouAreAGoodPuppy? You’reAHandsomeBoy. IBetYou’dLikeToMeetMyPuppy. I’llBringHerToSeeYouTomorrow. WantATreat?

Grace threw a cookie over the fence and it landed at his feet. He gobbled it then wagged his stumpy tail. She threw another one over but he had to reach for it. As he leaned forward, the chain turned his collar. She caught a glimpse of his nameplate between its metal spikes and shivered.

His name was Nemesis.

Chapter 5 – Angels and Allies

Going to the shelter was painful for Grace. But she knew the animals on death row were more anxious about their fate than she was, so she forced herself. Jules came too, for she had a calming effect on her mother and the inmates.

They never entered the shelter anymore. Grace became too upset seeing pets dumped by their owners and she’d confronted a few. And if a family came to adopt but left empty handed, Grace would plead a particular orphan’s case, begging with them to save their life before it was too late.

Max, the shelter manager, appreciated her volunteer work but had no tolerance for her behaviour. He ordered her to leave the humans alone and concentrate on the dogs instead. It haunted her, seeing the rows of animals on death’s door, so she stayed outside and had them brought out.

When they arrived at the shelter, Grace knocked on the back door. Her childhood friend Kat opened it and gave her a bear hug. “You’re here early, off work today?”

Grace shook her head in shame and told her she’d been fired.

“You were there a long time, well, for you, a long time. What was it, three years?” she asked, scratching Jules’ chest and making her back leg go thump thump thump.

Grace didn’t want to think about her track record. It reminded her of how unstable she was. They could talk about it Friday, when they met for drinks and bitched about life in the city.

“Who needs a walk?” she asked.

Kat brought out two black dogs that were among the Unfortunates. People avoid adopting black dogs and cats, so they are euthanized the most. Maybe it was the unfair reputations of Rottweilers or Dobermans, or the cultural association between black dogs and dark omens. Others believed black cats were evil and did hideous things to them on Halloween. Whatever it was, it was prejudice as far as Grace was concerned.

Brothers, Buddy and Zeke were Border Collie crosses, genetically engineered to work for a living. Adopted as puppies, their owner ignored the basics of dog rearing, and their training window passed without a single lesson. He didn’t socialize them when they were young, so they were hostile to other dogs. He didn’t neuter them either, so they were combative with other males. Chained up all their lives, their pent up energy made them uncontrollable, and they had no idea how to behave indoors. They barked at everything passing by, angering the neighbours, who complained so often they were finally surrendered.

Badly behaved through no fault of their own and stigmatized by cultural perceptions, their chances of adoption were slim to none.

When the boys emerged, their first instinct was to run from The House of Death. The will to survive is universal among all creatures, and having seen their fellow inmates led to The Killing Room, they lived in fear they’d be next.

Kat gripped their leashes as the boys burst through the door and jumped on Jules. They whined and scrambled over her while she let them smell the only friend they’d ever had. Jules was a wonder to the shelter staff. She had no fear of the most aggressive dogs and befriended the hardest cases.

Grace wondered what communication passed between these opposites ends of the canine wheel of fortune — Jules, one of the luckiest dogs in the world, and the inmates, who would number among the millions euthanized each year.

She took their leashes and headed to the dog park. There was only one dog in the enclosure, a slate grey, one-year old, 120 pound Great Dane who was still growing. He bounded over to the gate in a loveable, dopey way but Grace turned away.

“Hey, don’t be afraid of him, he’s big but he’s harmless. This is Mumford.”

“It’s not your dog I’m worried about, it’s these two. They’re pound puppies and I’m their volunteer walker. They’ll attack any dog they meet, so I can’t let them loose with others.”

“What about the other one?”

“She’s my girl. They’re okay with her, but that’s it. No worries, we’ll see if the other area is empty.” Grace tried dragging the boys away but they barked and lunged at poor Mumford, whose droopy eyes looked sadly at these misguided souls.

“We were just leaving,” he said, putting Mumford on his leash and heading to the second gate.

“Thank you, that’s so nice.”

When Mumford was safely on the other side, Grace brought the dogs into the neutral zone, unleashed them, then opened the inner door. Buddy and Zeke tore across the field towards Mumford, snarling and snapping like the hounds of hell.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding.”

“Sad, eh? I could kill their former owner. You’d think he would’ve had the sense to Google how to socialize a dog,” she said, trusting Karma would get him in the end. “Bastard dumped them at the pound. They’re on death row.”

Jules barked at them to chase her. Buddy and Zeke ran after her and they galloped rings around the perimeter. Grace had tears in her eyes as she watched them. She didn’t realize they’d started rolling down her cheeks until Mumford’s dad held out a tissue.

“Sorry,” she said, sniffing and patting her eyes. “It upsets me to see dogs cursed by neglect. Their numbers are up soon.” Grace cried easily, a symptom of her chronic depression.

He shouted “good luck” to the boys as he walked away but Mumford kept looking back, whimpering because he wasn’t allowed to play now that the fun had begun. Then the man stopped and turned, “Hey, what are their names? What shelter are they in?”

After they ran themselves ragged, Grace dreaded the trip back. They never wanted to return to The House of Death, and would plant their paws and pull in the other direction. She’d cry as she delivered them to their doom, wailing, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” as she dragged them back.

She wanted to run away with them, somewhere, anywhere, but there was nowhere to go. The shelters were overflowing and the private rescue groups were overwhelmed. Advocates monitored the thousands of animals scheduled to walk The Green Mile daily. They sent out desperate texts and tweets, and posted pleas on Facebook’s many pages dedicated to saving animals in crisis. Some days she’d get so depressed reading them she’d cry herself to sleep.

When they reached the shelter, Kat tried to console her. “Hey, you never know, someone might still adopt them. They have a bit of time left. There might be an angel up in heaven right now inspiring someone to adopt them. Stranger things have happened.”

But for Grace there was no consolation. If Buddy and Zeke weren’t killed that night, others would be put down to make room for the next wave of pets surrendered or abandoned on the side of the road.

She blew her nose, wiped her tears, then leaned over and kissed them goodbye. As Kat dragged them inside, Grace saw Mike. The animal control officer put his arms around her.

“You shouldn’t let this get to you so much,” he said.

“Don’t you know by now I’ve got no control over my emotions when it comes to animals?” she sobbed.

For Grace, the hardest thing about suffering from mental illness was how little others understood her anguish. It was the reason she kept to herself and let few people in. She was too ashamed to share the depths of her torment because they’d usually say something just like that.

Friends said she tormented herself by volunteering at the pound. They didn’t understand that in giving the inmates a breath of fresh air and a chance to run, that precious hour outside of their cages and a loving kiss, Grace was giving them the thing she felt they needed most. And no matter what it cost her, it was the greatest gift of all.

“I’m just finishing up — can I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“No, thanks, I got to go” she said, not that she did.

“What’s it going take for you to go out with me? You always say no. Why?”

Grace straightened her shoulders, “I don’t date.”

“Then let’s not call it a date — we’re just drinking buddies. C’mon, we can bring Jules. There’s a patio down the block. We can get a table by the rail and tie her up on the other side.” Then he whispered, “We can feed her wings when no one’s looking.”

She shook her head.

“Do I have to be a homeless animal for you to take me home?” He let his tongue hang out and panted. That made Grace laugh.

“I’m sorry dude, I’ve taken a vow of celibacy. Men never accept that Jules and my rescue work comes first, and I’m sick of fighting about it.”

“You’re preaching to the choir here. One of the reasons my wife left me was because she never knew what death row dog or cat she’d come home to.”

People thought Grace was distant and aloof but she preferred animals to people. They were kinder and more loving, and she related to them.

“Someday Mike, I promise.”

Clenching his jaw, he nodded and went inside, where he was assailed by a cacophony of desperate barks and meows screaming for salvation.

* * *

Returning home, Grace saw the Giving Pets A Chance van pulling up. Hannah was early for inspection and she panicked — she’d be caught with too many cats again.

Grace sneaked in the front door and entered through the hall. She crawled on her hands and knees to her kitchen door, opened it, and grabbed the first cat she saw. She raced upstairs and dumped Tomcat in Carla’s apartment.

When she opened the gate, Hannah was talking to Carla. Crossing her fingers, Grace hoped they hadn’t noticed the door open.

“I found the mother,” she blurted. “I’ve been meaning to call you but I’ve been so busy. I’ve changed jobs, I’m dogwalking again.” She tried to sound happy but knew it sounded forced.

“So how many do you have now, seven?”

“No, no, Tomcat was adopted by a little old lady I met where I’m dog walking.” She spoke breathlessly, signalling her anxiety. “When I found the mother I knew I was over the limit so I asked Mr. Russell’s neighbour whose cat just died if she’d take him until we found him a home but she was so smitten she kept him.”

Hannah eyed her — she’d known Grace long enough to sense when something was up. She was in her 50’s, had wiry red hair and like visible scars, bore the wrinkles of her heartbreaking rescues. She’d been doing it so long she’d toughened up externally, but privately she hurt all the same.

She welcomed a new batch of tenderhearted animal lovers into the organization every year, and then had to explain the realities of the pet crisis when their idealism hit the wall. For every cat or dog they saved, Giving Pets A Chance turned away a hundred more for lack of funding and space. Grace was her most difficult, but talented, volunteer.

“You know you can’t outboard without the agency doing a home inspection, and we need background checks before completing adoptions.”

“Oh, she was just this sweet old lady Mr. Russell said was so lonely she’d love Tomcat to pieces,” she lied, spotting him sitting on the ledge in Carla’s apartment. Carla had spotted him too and she gave Grace the evil eye.

“C’mon inside and see the mother. You should have seen how happy she was to find her kittens. They’ve been doing well, their eyes started opening this morning…” She gave up when she saw Hannah’s face, so she unlocked the screen door.

Hannah made regular inspections to ensure every animal was healthy and well-tended. She surveyed the porch with a clinical eye, counting its denizens, and then looked under the furniture for cached cats. She hunted for fleas, checked their bowls were clean, food was properly stored, and the litter boxes were scooped. She examined every feline, then spent twice as long inspecting the kittens before nodding in satisfaction. “Who else’s inside?”

“No one’s in my apartment, no ma’am, just Psycho. You know she won’t tolerate other cats.”

Hannah said she’d be back soon but wouldn’t tell Grace when. When she asked for Tomcat’s new number Grace said she’d forgotten to ask for it, so she had a brief reprieve.

She sighed in relief when the van left but Carla freaked. “Why did you bring that cat up to my apartment? That’s not why I gave you that key.”

“Sorry,” Grace said. “It’s such a beautiful day. Why can’t you bring Sheba out to enjoy it instead of keeping her locked up?”

“Stop changing the subject and get that cat out of my place. And clean up any mess it’s made. I hate how you’re always telling me what to with my dog.”

Grace might have known a lot about animals, but when it came to humans she was obtuse. The more Grace told Carla what not to do the more she did it. She wouldn’t bring Sheba outside now just to spite her.

When Grace went up to bring Tomcat down, she brought Sheba out too.

“I didn’t say you could bring her out here.” Grace put Tomcat in the porch as the little dog danced across the lawn, thrilled to be in the yard with her friends.

Sheba and Jules explored the yard, sniffing the droppings the birds, squirrels and raccoons had left. When Sheba found a particularly putrid bit of excrement Grace yelled, “NO STINK,” but the dog rolled in it joyfully, her paws stretching into the air.

Carla squawked and rushed at Sheba but Grace jumped in between them. “I’ll clean her up, it’s my fault, don’t take it out on her when you’re mad at me.” Carla glared.

“I’ve got a bottle of wine in the house,” Grace said. “Why don’t I bring it out and we can enjoy this beautiful Indian Summer weather while it lasts?”

By the end of the first glass, Carla began whining about her boyfriend again. Grace spent hours listening to her man-troubles, suffering the tedious stories repeatedly, told with increasing indignation and self-pity.

When the bottle was done, Carla headed upstairs. Grace went through her routine with the cats, had something to eat, then walked Jules. She returned dog tired and was about to collapse into bed when she saw the pile of poop.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess, you’re mad because I didn’t pay any attention to you tonight?” She picked up the offending turd and flushed it.

When she took the plastic sheeting off she jostled Psycho, who clawed her. Grace screamed — one of Psycho’s nails was hooked between her thumb and forefinger. When she tried to detach it the cat attacked, biting and kicking and clawing her arms. The harder Psycho fought the louder Grace screamed. Jules paced as they battled hand to paw.

When Grace finally extracted her claw, the cat jumped off the bed and hid beneath it. Although Grace had never raised a hand to her, Psycho still didn’t trust her.

Grace bandaged her wounds then crawled into bed. She started to cry for Tomcat, who was being evicted, then cried harder because he had nowhere to go. Then she cried for Buddy and Zeke. She pleaded with St. Roch, begging him to spare their lives another night. She pictured the boys curled up in their cage, shaking throughout those terrifying hours when animals were led away and never returned.

That night, she dreamed that it was Jules in their cage. She screamed silently at animal control to take his hands off her girl there must be some mistake Jules had a home but she was led into The Killing Room while Grace pawed the door with her bandaged hand.

She woke at four o’clock, then tossed and turned until dawn.

* * *

Grace called Mr. Russell’s early the next morning. Lana answered and said he was not an early riser. Sensing Grace’s distress, she coaxed the story out of her. When he called her back he told her to bring Tomcat over, he knew a woman who’d like to meet him. Whooping with joy, she put the cat in a carrier and called a cab.

Tomcat caterwauled his way downtown as Grace’s anxiety soared in unison. When they entered Mr. Russell’s apartment JR rushed the carrier. He sniffed around it then poked his nose through a hole in the crate, startling the cat, which poked him back.

“Lana, put JR in my room, will ya? I want to take a look at him before we bring him over to Dorothy’s, make sure he’s not a sabre-toothed tiger.”

Tomcat was surrendered to a shelter when his elderly owner died and none of his family would adopt him. They’d dropped him at a high-kill shelter, one that euthanized more animals than they rehomed. Hannah rescued him the day he was to be put down.

“He is a handsome boy.” Mr. Russell reached out and Tomcat rubbed against his big hand, purring like a Harley.

“How’s he with dogs?” Grace assured him Tomcat was wonderful with Jules. He was photogenic, with broad tabby stripes and large green eyes. His profile had been posted online for months, but he had languished at Grace’s without a single inquiry.

Grace wished she could have kept Tomcat, but Psycho wouldn’t tolerate him, so she gave him up like so many she’d become attached to before.

Satisfied, they headed down the hall. Tomcat mewed as they knocked on the door. When Dorothy opened it Mr. Russell cracked, “Want a cat?”

She was a beautiful woman with grey hair and eyes who had grown frail. Dorothy laughed pleasantly and invited them in. A tall, thin Greyhound-mix named Nina approached the carrier and stood over it as Tomcat jumped out. He wove around Dorothy’s ankles then brushed up against the dog.

When they sat down to tea, Grace apologized for suddenly springing a cat upon them. She confessed she’d lied to Hannah as she told them Tomcat’s history.

“You have nothing to apologize for, my dear. Whatever it takes to save a dog or cat, I’m all for it, and if we have to lie, so be it. A lie is only bad if it hurts someone. When it saves a poor soul like Tomcat, you will be forgiven,” she said, as if she had influence in heaven.

Tomcat jumped up on her lap and his eyes closed as she stroked him. Mr. Russell began regaling Dorothy with Grace’s taming of JR. He said he was looking forward to starting their obedience lessons. “There are quite a few people in this building that should sign up for that class,” she said.

Grace asked her about Nina, “I’ve never seen a Greyhound-cross before. The racing associations are so strict about getting them fixed if they’re lucky enough to be adopted instead of euthanized when their career ends.”

“After my daughter died I rented a house in Spain for a month,” she began. “There were so many stray dogs there, and she used to come to my door. I fed her, although everyone told me not to. They said the dogs were a nuisance and treated them terribly.”

“Nina wouldn’t let me touch her, but we became friends. When my stay was over I tried to find her a home, but there were no shelters or rescue groups. So, when it was time to leave, Lufthansa boarded her for me while I took a bus tour, then we flew home.” She’d said it simply, as if it was completely natural to bring a street dog home halfway across the world. Grace had heard a few amazing adoption stories, but nothing like this.

“I called her Nina, which is the Spanish word for young girl. I lost one daughter but adopted another that year,” she said.

Nina’s transition from street dog to house pet wasn’t easy. She’d had to stay in quarantine upon arrival and wasn’t used to living indoors. Nina was hostile to other dogs if food was involved, and growled at her or Smitty if they went near her bowl. Used to fighting for every scrap of food, it took her a while to relax and understand that she’d never be hungry or homeless again.

“What happened to your cat Smitty?”

“He passed away last month, old age,” she sighed. “Poor Nina here’s been so lonely without him.”

When it was time to leave, Grace offered to take Nina out with JR for a walk on the house. Dorothy hesitated. JR didn’t like Nina but Mr. Russell assured her Grace could handle them both. With her arthritis getting worse, Dorothy rarely walked Nina anymore, and before Grace knew it, she had another customer.

Dorothy waved goodbye then called after them, “Watch out for Fred. Don’t let Nina anywhere near him.”

Grace turned to Mr. Russell. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I forgot to warn you about him,” and he rolled his eyes at the very mention of The Dog House’s nemesis.

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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