One Husky puppy wears a charcoal mask and has a tail like a question mark covered in frost. He patrols the yard’s perimeter barking at passing planes and searching for escape routes under the fence, every bit the wolf I wish my spirit guide to be. The other has jet-black fur worn like a hooded cape reaching down the length of her back. She climbs into my lap, flashes enormous “Save Me” eyes and so insinuates herself into my heart that to tear us apart would leave us both in shreds.
My new dog and I follow the lone volunteer into the spartan lobby of the animal shelter to fill out the requisite paperwork. I tell her they call me Alex, Oleg originally, but now and forever after, I am Alex. She tells me her name is Lilly and gives me her phone number. A plaintive whimper from the cages interrupts our small talk. “He’s looking for his sister,” she says. Suddenly, the cold winds invade through the door to the parking lot and sweep me back to the Siberia I knew. No frisky puppies, just a room stuffed with orphans. Were they my brothers and sisters? I don’t remember anymore. “Don’t worry,” says Lilly, providing a panacea with a poison aftertaste. “Soon, he will forget she ever existed.”
It only takes Dasha a few weeks to cover my modest apartment with a skein of discarded hair. She shreds the drapes in frenzied displays but demonstrates premeditated deviousness in her campaign to gnaw through the legs of the kitchen table. Our first walk ends in a koi pond with me following Dasha into the murky water so I can yank a dead fish out from between her teeth. Lilly calls to check in and I confess all our misadventures but insist it is just a result of her newfound freedom. Lilly has concerns and arrives at my home with a good leash, proper dog food and some words of encouragement, “You can do this.” I share with her stories of my own childhood, lots of misbehavior and two adoptive parents who refused to give up on me. Lilly tears up.
Future walks happen in the dense forest behind my apartment complex with Lilly as chaperone. Dasha bounds through the snow, over exposed roots and through dry branches. I strain my muscles clutching the new leash, but Lilly tells me to relax, “She will always return to you. You have the food and the warm home.”
“Most important, I have the love,” I say to Lilly. She makes us dinner that night, and then breakfast the next morning. When we sleep together, Dasha lies between us. She twists her body into a curlicue of fur and buries her snout beneath my cold pillow. In the darkness, I reach across her to see if Lilly is still there.
A few nights later, our date ends with me behind bars while Lilly pays my bail. All the cops have gathered around Dasha to stroke the velvety fur between her pointed ears. Meanwhile, I make sure to say goodbye to each and every man in the holding cell before I leave. Later, I’ll flash this same charm to the judge and the jury. Your honor, I couldn’t leave my puppy at home alone. For what she ate off others’ plates, I’ll gladly pay. The restaurant manager threw the first punch.
Lilly drives us home alone in the front seat. A particularly sharp turn forces Dasha’s claws to dig into the flesh of my thighs. I assure her I am not going anywhere. Then, Lilly stops the car and looks me right in the eye. She asks why I didn’t listen to her about bringing Dasha to the restaurant. So, I try to explain, “When something better came along, I left everything I had behind. Never again.” Dasha interrupts me, audibly gnawing a novelty figurine pilfered from an officer’s desk. I try to pull it away from her. “Dasha will learn from my mistakes.”
Some nights later I go to sleep planning our getaway. My public defender has promised me an affordable fine and less than a year, lots of chances to get out early, but a cozy gulag is still a prison. And one without my Dasha. I hope Lilly will be okay. Giving up what she has is a big deal. However, I awake to the sounds of an idling car on the icy street outside. Lilly has spent a restless night planning for herself, “I’m leaving and I’m taking Dasha back.”
“She won’t go back to the cages.” I hear Dasha growl at the very suggestion, at least I imagine I do.
“I’ll take her in and give her a good home.”
“And me?” I say, smiling.
Lilly drops her gaze to the floor and Dasha laps at her palm, the way she does when she attempts to heal a wound, “Dasha needs someone to take care of her.”
“No, what she needs is someone who understands her.”
“You mean someone who makes excuses for her?”
When I turn to my dog for empathy, Dasha knocks me over on her way out the door. She follows Lilly, scrambling across the slick concrete, standing tall, and pushing against the passenger’s side window of the car. She pleads with a whistling whimper because Lilly cannot let her in fast enough. As they drive far and forever away, I fall to my knees and in silence I crawl around the room looking for an empty corner in which to lie. You will remember me, I say in my mind, but will they? The tears I shed are for them as much as they are for me.
While writing for a community newspaper, James Kennedy learned that amazing stories hide in everyday life. His work has appeared at SmokeLong Quarterly and Literary Orphans. It has been recognized by New Millennium Writings and Writer’s Digest and has been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016. A veteran Special Education teacher, he recently earned a PHD in Literacy Studies and teaches at a local community college, tutors kids of all ages, and helps at a friend’s comic shop.