The Happy Birthday Stick

Boxer and his big stick

Boxer and his big stick

I’ve been studying Boxer’s quirks since he moved in and get the biggest kick out of his obsession with sticks.

I used to introduce him at the dog park as the Golden Retriever who didn’t retrieve. Throw a ball or stick and, sure, he’d chase it, but then he’d hang out in its general vicinity, looking around, clueless. Occasionally, he’d pick it up and… drop it. At other times he’d even trot a few feet with it, his tail wagging happily, but that’s it. He wouldn’t bring it back so I could throw it again. He was oblivious to the very thing he was genetically engineered for: retrieving it.

If I didn’t go get it, games of fetch stopped in his muddy tracks. I even wondered if he was teaching me to fetch I spent so much time getting the damn stick myself. Fetch is a great way to exercise a dog, and Boxer was portly enough to need it. So I persevered. Maybe he spent enough time in the dog park, watching other dogs get their sticks thrown again and again that he finally clued in, but I doubt it. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

I finally used the old milkbone solution. Whenever he’d pick up a stick I’d thrown, I’d call him over for a treat. If he made it to within two paces of me whilst still in possession of the stick, he got a treat. If he dropped it halfway, uh-huh, no deal, no treat. (We had a few stalemates over this technicality.)

We kept this up, week after week, until one day it seemed to dawn on him that this was his mission in life: I retrieve! Eureka, he seemed to be saying with his happy trot and wide doggie grin. And not only that, but once Boxer retrieves a stick, he adopts it.

He’s not a possessive dog — he’ll drop his stick for anybody who asks. Throw it in the park and he’ll back off if a dominant dog wants it. But when it’s time to go home — that stick is coming with us. And he won’t leave the park without it.

Boxer seems to become attached to them. The adoption process usually begins with a good roll. He likes to find a patch of fresh snow or lush grass, toss his stick down, and roll on it in glee, back and forth, over and over, until he ends up a few feet away, still rocking and rolling. Oh the look on his face when he does. (And if one of his quirks wasn’t a terror of being photographed, I’d have a ton of photos of it for you!)

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Rocking and rolling on his stick

He also insists on carrying the sticks home, something that’s brought a smile to the face of many a driver passing us on the road. He trots home merrily with it, his tale wagging, showing off his prize.

I’ve put a champagne bucket by my door where we keep the sticks. What really makes his day is when I take a stick from it when we head out for a walk. He has to carry it himself, and he’ll race to the park with it, no stopping for a pee on the way. And that stick must make the return trip with us, or he won’t go home.

And in the middle of winter in two or three feet of snow, he kept losing it. I’d throw it, he’d roll on it, and by the time he stopped, he’d made snow angels on a forty foot patch and buried it for good. He’d be out there forever, nose buried under the snow, refusing to come until we’d found that stick and brought it home. I dug many a hole but we lost many sticks over the winter.

If I try to substitute another stick, uh-huh, he has to take his stick home. Sometimes we can’t take his stick home. Maybe someone — like him! — chewed it up at the park and it’s just bits of wood now. Or maybe some other dog chewed it to pieces, as if to say, Ha! It was yours, loser. Or maybe the stick is just too damn big.

Boxer adopted one stick that was so big and so long, he could barely carry it. I tricked him into leaving it behind the first few times until it finally got buried in a snow bank. But now it’s spring… and guess who found the big stick yesterday?

Well, Boxer just insisted on taking it home. Nothing would budge him, nothing could coax him, no trick would fool him into leaving it behind. It’s so long Gandalf could use it as a walking stick. Boxer struggled home with it. A ten minute walk took four times that long. It teetered lopsidedly in his mouth, one end dragging on the path. He kept stopping and dropping it and looking to me for help. I’d show him how to hold it in the middle, and off he’d go, a few more feet towards home.

When we got home, I put it in the champagne bucket with the rest of his adopted sticks. That’s usually the end of the story, until its return trip to the park. But not that big stick. Oh no. He paced, he whined, he wanted that stick. He’s a good dog, and if I tell him to go lay down, he will. But not this time.

After an hour I finally gave up and took the stick out and laid it in front of the door for him, knowing he’d chew it to bits and I’d have a colossal clean up.

Uh-huh. He still paced and whined, this time by his toy box right beside his human’s spot on the sofa. So, I finally moved it there. Then he surprised me again: he settled back down in front of the door to wait for his dad to come home from work.

Fast forward a few hours, his dad comes home and sees the stick by his end of the sofa and says, WTF?

We couldn’t figure this quirk out at first. Why didn’t Boxer chew it up? Or leave it in the bucket with the others? Why wasn’t it okay in front of the door? Why did it have to be in front of his dad’s spot on the sofa?

Then it hit me.

It’s his Dad’s birthday this week, and Boxer wanted to give that great big stick to him for his birthday.

 

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Pedestrians beware!

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Why People Love Dogs So Much

Recently a friend expressed exasperation on their Facebook page:

“I can’t believe how much attention and time and money people give to their dogs. They are DOGS for crying out loud.”

I think my friend is referring to people like this…

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There are those of us afraid to trust humans anymore because we’ve been betrayed..

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Some of us have been hurt by someone we love and are afraid to love again…

Dog loves you more

And we know that dogs think we are the most important people in their world..

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Dogs bring caring and compassion to lonely, elderly people…

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And comfort to the sick and injured…

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They’re always happy to see us come home…

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And they rely on us completely…

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No matter how bad our lives get…

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Or how empty they may seem to others…

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They bring joy and fun and happiness to everything we do together…

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They always love our cooking…

Cooking bacon

Are grateful for everything we give them…

(which most people can’t say about their children)

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They’re patient and teach children compassion…

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And watch out for our safety…

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They protect our soldiers…

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And are free of the ugly aspects of humanity…

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So we can’t help hoping…

Youll meet me in the light

In our technological world, where we spend more time online talking to strangers than with our friends and family…

as we are bombarded by bad news, crime, poverty, cruelty and heartbreak…

I believe people turn to their dogs because they are pure, simple, and love us unconditionally…

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If our purpose in life is to love and be loved…

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…count me in as one of the people who find their purpose in loving dogs

Colleen xoxo

It’s A Miracle! The Taming of the Psycho Kitty

Psycho is based on my Kitty - a friend saved her from abusive neighbours

Psycho is based on my Kitty – a friend saved her from abusive neighbours

When I adopted Kitty she was nine months old. She was a sweet cat, affectionate and even-tempered. Considering the abusive situation she was rescued from, this is surprising in hindsight. (You can read more about her true story in Chapter 4 of my novel The Patron Saint of Dogs.)

Kitty wasn’t spayed, which we learned when she went into heat. It was sometime after the spaying, and around the time I broke up with my partner, that her personality changed.

She began attacking me and my guests. She’d wander around the house howling, like she was in distress or pain. And her habit of using my bed as a litter box increased dramatically.

Over the next few years, repeated trips to the vet didn’t uncover any underlying health issues. She had a touch of crystals in her bladder, but not enough to be causing her the kind of pain or discomfort that explained her behaviour.

When all of my options seemed to be exhausted, the vet I was seeing – Dr. W — told me my options were to either live with it, give her up or euthanize her.

I chose to live with it, but I was also choosing misery. As far as roommates go, Kitty was a nightmare. Rarely did a day go by that she didn’t scratch or bite me. Cuddling was out of the question. And when I was in need of a little animal therapy, petting her was impossible, because she’d lash out suddenly. She was demanding, insisting on attention when she wanted it, and if she didn’t get it, she’d have a hissy fit. I had to keep a shower curtain across my bed to protect it from its daily defiling. At times, I dreaded going home.

When I changed vets, Dr. C suggested I start using Feliway. It resembles a plug-in air freshener, only it mimics a cat’s pheromones to make them feel safe and secure. Boxer had just moved in, so the vet said it would take a bit more time to work on Kitty in her heightened state of anxiety with a dog in the house.

After the first month, the change in her started to show. Seven months later, she’s a changed cat. My bed has lost its shower curtain. My cat is sweet and cuddly – most of the time – and when she does have a hissy fit, it’s milder. I can’t remember the last time she attacked me and drew blood.

She’s even warmed up to Boxer – I caught Kitty touching her nose to his as she passed him in the hall one day and almost fell over in shock.

I’ve never been one to get on my soapbox and tout a product to others, but in this case, Feliway has been a lifesaver.

Sometimes, it takes a change of vet or a simple solution to solve a problem with your furry friend. Don’t give up. Kitty’s story shows that harsh alternatives weren’t the answer, and something as basic as a happy cat hormone can mean the difference between misery and blissful cohabitation.

The Most Phobic Dog in the World

Boxer, the most phobic dog in the world, needed a home & moved as I started the book

Boxer, the most phobic dog in the world, needed a home & moved as I started the book

 

Back in August, when a friend called to ask if I could give his dog a home, I was thrilled to become Boxer’s foster mom. I’d met him a few times, but had no idea my new roommate is in the running to be the most phobic dog in the world.

To say that walking Boxer was a challenge is an understatement. He’ll only walk familiar routes and is terrified of anyplace new. If an object appears that wasn’t there the day before, it’s trouble. Maybe it’s an orange pylon or a car parked where it shouldn’t be — he’ll go no further. If he hears a Harley, he runs for cover. I don’t even bother trying to walk him downtown – it’s way too noisy. And when trains passed through town, we’d have to stop for ten minutes while he was frozen in fear. We couldn’t even walk towards the train tracks the first few months, even if the coast was clear. You never know, he seemed to say, one might be coming!

The day I assembled my new Ikea sofa was traumatizing — all that banging and moving and cursing left him quaking. Now, anytime I move anything, he runs. Open the closet where the broom hides – he runs. My floors are scratched by his scrambling escapes from unexpected sounds, noisy trucks, and the rowdies upstairs.

One of his funniest phobias is getting his picture taken. I have no idea why. I tried for months to snap his picture, but he’d run every time. This became hilarious at my birthday party. Every time someone would take out their camera, he’d flee. The only reason I even have the photo of him above was because he was playing monkey-in-the-middle at the park and I snapped this when he wasn’t looking.

When I was a dogwalker and pet sitter, phobic animals were part of the job, so I thought I’d seen it all. Cleo, one of my favourite furry friends, was a collie-cross. She developed agoraphobia as she matured and couldn’t be coaxed out for a walk. My dearly departed dog Jules developed a fear of thunder late in life, and hid in the bathtub during storms. (She also barked at jello – I have no idea why.)

Then there was Willow, a Siamese cat with behavioural issues. She peed on everything and hid whenever her owners were away. I’d read The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Nicholas Dodman, so I was familiar with his theory that Prozac could help animals, but I was skeptical. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Willow’s one day and started reading a note her human had left. It said I might notice a change in her  — Willow was now on Prozac. I looked down, and there was phobia cat, weaving around my ankles and purring.

I’d just started writing The Patron Saint of Dogs when Boxer arrived. He’s been an inspiration for the novel and has helped me heal – and come to terms with my grief and guilt over Jules’ agonizing death. We all have our scars, and I suspect Boxer had a traumatic experience during his imprint stage.

As Boxer has settled in, he’s eased up – a bit — and I’ve found a few bizarre solutions. If he poops after we’ve left the park, we can only get to the garbage bin behind my building via detour. He will not approach the bin from the east – he’ll plant his feet and nothing can drag his eighty pounds an inch closer to the brown monstrosity. But walk around the building and approach that same bin from the west? No problem!

He’s adapted to certain sounds, too. If a train passes by, he’s cool. Take a new route to the park? It doesn’t faze him anymore. Dogs, like people, have their hang ups, and Boxer certainly does. With a bit of acclimatization and patience, he’s settled down and we’ve both learned to adjust.

But move the coffee table an inch? He still bolts.

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 4 – Friends and Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re home early.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“A dog like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you offered?”

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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