Loose the Dogs

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prologue

drop cap tF ONE THING I AM sure,” Glenn declared. “These dogs are perfectly harmless.”

Burton studied him with a frown. It was a bold statement. And Glenn was the expert, the man they had made responsible to examine the psyches of these beasts. He was the one who was to help them decide the dogs’ eventual fate.

“How sure are you?” he prodded.

“These dogs are not killers. They are house pets. Until recently, they were well cared for and had good relationships with their owners. I’ve talked to the family and neighbors. I’ve interacted with the dogs. You do not need to worry about it. They are good dogs.”

“So your recommendation is to adopt them out.”

“It would be criminal to put them down. What they did was purely for survival. It had nothing to do with aggression or violence. They are not going to hurt anyone.”

“A lot of people are going to scream about them being killers if they are not put down.”

“People will complain no matter what you decide. I already have a waiting list of people who want to adopt these dogs. One of them or even all of them together. I have more people than I can deal with.”

Burton shook his head. “I don’t think it is a good idea to adopt them out locally. Who knows what kind of weirdos we’re going to get. Sure, there will be do-gooders who want to rehabilitate them or give them a good home. But how do you tell them apart from people who want a dangerous animal and will abuse them to increase aggression? Or people who want an animal with a reputation, something to show off. They’ll get bored real fast, and you’ll have the dogs back here to adopt out again. I don’t know about dogs, but I know what happens to kids who keep getting shifted from one home to another.”

Glenn nodded. “Same thing,” he admitted. “Pretty soon they get identified as unadoptable, and we have to put them down.”

“Rather unlike children,” Burton clarified dryly.

“Right,” Glenn chuckled. “That wouldn’t be considered humane. Even though we would do it to our pets…”

“Different species, different laws. Okay. So we’re going to have to do a press release. Announce they have all been examined by an expert, have been declared to be safe, blah blah blah, and will be adopted out. But we’re not going to put them up locally, and we’re not going to keep them together. We’ll split them up and ship them all out to other cities.”

Glenn shrugged. “If you have the connections to make those arrangements, great. And you’re going to make sure the adopting families know the dogs’ history…”

Burton shook his head, face flushing. His mouth tightened. “Not a chance. You’ve said they’re safe. Knowing their history will have no impact on their behavior in their new homes. We’re not going to tell people what happened. That will just cause the same problems as adopting them locally. Nice, quiet, stable families aren’t going to adopt them. We need to get them into good homes. So they are well cared for, and there is no chance of any future violence.”

Glenn swallowed. He looked at the floor, scuffing the tile with his foot. “Mr. Burton… I know you’re the one making the decisions here, but I don’t think that is wise.”

“So you aren’t one hundred percent sure the dogs are safe?”

“Yes, of course I am.”

“Then why would we have to tell anybody what has happened here?”

“Just… because… they should know.”

Burton shook his head. “No. No, no, no. That’s the last thing they need to know.”

chapter 1

drop cap fRANK HORCHUK WOULD NEVER forget walking into that trailer. He saw it in his mind every time he closed his eyes. He woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, seeing those eyes and those teeth, screaming soundlessly, gasping for breath. Janice, his wife, had started sleeping in the other room, because even if Frank took sleeping pills, he still thrashed around in the throes of nightmares. He kept crying, wanting to hold her and to turn on the light. All of which, it would seem, upset her own sleep cycle.

The Johnsons’ neighbors had reported something was wrong. They could hear the dogs howling and barking when they drove past. They hadn’t seen Marion and Duane in many days, and Marion and Duane were always out and about; in the community visiting, fixing things, and of course taking the furry babies for walks. Everyone knew Marion and Duane. And they knew something was wrong. It had just been too long.

Frank had knocked and tried the door. There was no answer, and the door was locked. He tried to look through the windows, but it was summer, and the windows were blocked with tinfoil to try to keep the little trailer livable during the day. He could smell something putrid. He could hear the dogs, barking, and barking, but there were no footsteps, no one coming to the door. He took a walk around the trailer looking for anything suspicious. But there was nothing. Just the dogs barking wildly in the trailer. Barking at him to leave or to let them out. He wasn’t a dog person. He wasn’t sure what their particular tone of barks might tell a dog whisperer.

Frank tried again to look through the window, though he knew it was useless. He looked at the car, parked in the driveway. They only had one car registered to their names. The car hadn’t been driven for several days. He could tell by the dust caked on it by the prairie wind. The muddy streaks from the morning dew. The car had been sitting there for a while. A good long while.

Eventually, Frank found himself on the doorstep again, this time taking out his lock aid to unlock the door. He fitted it in and pressed the button. Presto, the lock clicked. He turned the handle and paused before opening the door. He could hear the dogs moving frantically up and down the trailer. They weren’t locked up or chained. And they weren’t going to like an intruder.

“Hello?” he called. “Marion? Duane? This is Frank Horchuk, county police. Are you there? Do you need help?”

The dogs were on the other side of the door, barking, snarling, scratching at it. As he pushed it in ever-so-slowly, paws came around the door, grasping, trying to pull the door open far enough they could escape. He would have to step in with his leg blocking the door and push it shut behind him. Otherwise, the dogs would get out and be running loose on the property. Hoping they wouldn’t bite him; hoping if they did, his heavy pants would protect his legs; Frank pushed his leg through the door, and slid the rest of himself into the trailer sideways, shutting the door behind him before those barking, snarling, furry babies of Marion’s could escape.

Frank was immediately assaulted with the stench of the trailer. He could hardly breathe in the stifling enclosed space. He wanted to open the door immediately and slip back out. But he breathed through his mouth and waited for his eyes to focus in the dimness. There were no lights and the sunshine was well-blocked by the tin foil in the windows. He stood there, hands held out toward the dogs in a friendly, nonthreatening greeting. They were growling at him, but they didn’t attack, and the barks had quieted. Some of them were whining.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he closed them to shut out the gruesome sight. He couldn’t physically bear to look at all of it at the same time. He held his hand over his eyes. He squinted through his fingers at one small part of the room, then closed his eyes again, breathing heavily through his mouth, and trying to process it before squinting again and immediately closing his eyes. He was like a child watching a scary movie on TV, pulled in by the fascination and curiosity, trying desperately to shut out the horror. It was too awful to take it all in.

The dogs had been shut in the trailer for a long time. The floor was caked with urine and feces. He might just have to retire his shoes after the call. But that wasn’t the only smell. There was an overwhelming smell of decomposing flesh. The dogs had matted, dark muzzles. They’d been eating something and had not been properly cared for. Marion and Duane should have cleaned them up. Frank looked more carefully to see what they had eaten, though he had already seen too much. He already knew, his brain just couldn’t accept what he had seen.

The desiccated remains of two bodies were laying in the living room. On the floor.

What was left of the bodies.

They were mangled almost too badly to be recognized as bodies anymore. Parts were missing, some of them scattered around the floor, where the dogs had each dragged their own portions to eat unmolested. Bits of bones and mangled flesh. Blood was spattered and smeared all over everything. The carpet, the walls, the dogs themselves.

The dogs were a sorry sight. Thin to the point of emaciation, their fur dull and matted. Their eyes crazy with fear. When he looked at the ones growling, they cowered before him, showing submissive behavior, even though he had made no threatening moves toward them. He reached slowly toward a golden retriever a foot or two away from him, rolling its eyes and crouching in submissive body language. As soon as he reached toward it, the dog’s demeanor changed. It growled, showing its long sharp teeth. When he got too close, it snapped at him, and Frank jerked back, startled. He took a deep breath and tried to calm his heart.

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

A big black rottie advanced toward him, snarling. Long, pointed teeth, flecked with foam and blood.

Unable to comprehend what had happened, Frank turned the handle on the door behind him, slowly opened it and slipped back out. Slamming the door to the trailer, he stood on the front step, gulping down the cool, clean air, trying to clear his head and figure out what to do next.

It had been a long time before he was able to reach for his phone and call for backup and animal control. He stuttered and stammered on the phone, unable to describe what he had seen.

Those beasts, those horrible beasts. Were they the victims here? Abandoned to their own devices?

Or had they attacked their owners, unprovoked?

Frank was trying to focus on his model trains when Janice called him into the living room where she was watching the news. He knew by her voice something was wrong.

He hurried out, expecting to see a train wreck or a terrorist attack, maybe a hurricane off the coast of Florida where their daughter Elsie had just moved. Instead, he saw only a man in a suit, labeled ‘Jim Burton’ on the news screen, addressing a small scrum of reporters.

“What—” he started.

Janice waved him to silence. Frank stood back and listened to the suited man as he smiled and reassured the reporters.

“All of the dogs have been examined and watched by experts,” he soothed, “and have been determined to be perfectly safe and nonviolent pets. They have been determined to be appropriate for adoption.”

“The dogs…?” Frank repeated hollowly.

He saw them in front of him… the wet, matted muzzles. The crazy shine in the Rottweiler’s eye as it advanced on him in the trailer, stifling with the smell of feces and urine and blood and decomposing flesh.

He heard all the dogs barking, snarling, and whining, as if they were so deranged they didn’t even know what they felt.

And those bodies… torn to pieces… dragged around the room… pieces of bone and flesh hidden in corners, where each dog had dragged his own take.

The dogs were like ghosts. Like zombies, their ribs sticking out, their fur matted with blood, their eyes wild and crazy. They had tasted human flesh and Frank wasn’t going to stick around to see how they liked it.

The reporters were all shouting questions at Burton, who was smiling serenely and nodding.

“They are not violent. They are not dangerous,” he repeated. “We have had them examined by the top psychologist in the field. These dogs are the victims. They went through a terrible ordeal, and in the end, they did what they had to in order to survive. They didn’t choose for this to happen. They didn’t attack their owners. They were left to fend for themselves when their owners passed away of natural causes. They simply did what they had to in order to survive, the same as humans have been forced to throughout history. If we, being logical, thinking, moral creatures, can, in the direst of circumstances, be driven to eat human flesh, then why not these animals? They may love their owners, but after the weeks pass… they just did what they had to to survive. They are not a danger to their new owners.”

“Who do our viewers talk to if they want to adopt them?” a pressed, coiffed woman at the front of the scrum asked.

There was shocked silence for a moment while the other reporters stared at her. Then they all looked to Horchuk for his answer.

“If you want to adopt a dog, you can go to the Humane Society and fill out a form,” Burton said smoothly. “There is no special process for these dogs. There are no special requests for these dogs. They will go to the family they are best suited to, just like any other adoptable animals.”

“But surely you will tell people if the dogs they adopt are part of this group?” one of the male reporters demanded.

“That’s all the questions I can take right now. There are press releases on the table to your right. There are some binders of pictures of animals currently at the Humane Society for adoption. Thank you.”

He walked away from the microphone, answering no more questions.

Frank stared in horror. “They are letting them go?” he said to Janice, in shock. “They are letting them all go?” He was aware he was shouting at her, even though it wasn’t her fault. “Those animals should be destroyed! They are killers! You can’t just unleash killers on an unsuspecting public!”

Janice shook her head, the expression in her eyes mirroring the horror and anger welling up in him. Outside the house, a dog barked. Frank jumped, his head whipping around to locate it. Again, he saw all those dark, wet muzzles surrounding him, barking, showing their teeth. Hungry, mad beasts.

He covered his eyes and rubbed his forehead, trying to wipe the images away. He dropped his voice. “Oh, Janice… how could they do this? How could they be so stupid?”

“Maybe they’re right,” she offered. “Maybe it was just a matter of necessity. We don’t know.”

“You didn’t see those dogs,” he snapped. “He—” Frank pointed at the TV screen, even though Burton was gone and forgotten by the cheerful news anchors back at the studio. “He never saw those dogs. How could anyone make such a stupid decision, knowing what they did?”

“We don’t know they did anything wrong, Frank. They said the dogs didn’t kill the Johnsons, they just… were starving, because no one was taking care of them anymore. It was just survival.”

“How could they know? How can anyone know?” He was yelling, hurting his throat with the vehemence of his words.

“The autopsy—”

“Janice, all that was left was bones! How could they decide from the bones? I never even heard what the Cause of Death was. Did you hear a determination of Cause of Death?”

“I’m sure they must have figured something out.” Her voice was calm, trying to make him see reason. “They wouldn’t just release the dogs without knowing for sure, would they?”

“Wouldn’t they? Bureaucrats! They just don’t want to upset the bleeding hearts! The animal lovers! Well, you can love a wolf without unleashing it on the public!”

“But maybe they’re right. Maybe they really are sure the dogs are not a danger.”

“How can they be sure? They can’t talk to the dogs. Even talking to a serial killer, people can’t tell. The experts can’t even prove what is going on in a person’s head. How can they prove what is going on in a dog’s head? If there is even a mental process. What if they just act on instinct? How can they be sure the dogs won’t attack a live person? Is it really worth the risk?”

“I don’t know… maybe they know,” Janice repeated, stuck on that thought, unable to conceive that Frank could be right and the dogs could be killers.

“They don’t know. If you put the dogs down, then you know. Then you know they’ll never attack anyone again. If you let them go… if you let families adopt them—” Frank’s brain flooded with pictures of babies and children, torn to bloody shreds.

“Oh no…” he moaned, holding his head. “If they let families adopt them… how can they risk children’s lives like that?”

chapter 1

drop cap as they got ready to leave the house, Brenda swung the baby seat at her side. Her arm ached with the weight and she really hoped Erin would stop fussing and go back to sleep.

“I’m so excited,” she said earnestly to Darren. She laughed. “Is it weird I’m so excited about getting a dog?”

Brenda was aware she was still often mistaken for a teenager. She’d managed to lose most of her pregnancy weight, and she was short and small-boned to start with. With her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and an easy smile, she looked like a high school cheerleader. Darren smiled indulgently.

“You’ve wanted a dog since before we got married. We are finally in a house of our own, where we can have pets. Of course you’re excited.”

“The kids are going to be so blown away,” she giggled.

“Cassy won’t know what to do with herself,” he agreed. “She’s wanted a dog ever since she could talk.”

“We’ll have to get one good with kids; a good family dog.”

“I’m sure there will be a lot of them at the SPCA. We’ll have our pick.”

“Do you think it’s right to go to the SPCA?” Brenda asked. “We shouldn’t get a puppy, raise it all the way ourselves?”

Darren shrugged. “It’s up to you. You said you didn’t want to have babies in diapers and be house training a dog at the same time,” he reminded her.

Brenda nodded, sighing. “I love puppies… they are so cute. But they are a lot of work. Peeing and teething, eating things and throwing up…”

“Just like kids,” Darren teased.

“Yeah, just like kids. I don’t want another kid right now. I want a dog. An adult dog.”

“There’s your answer, then. Don’t worry about a puppy. It will be better to get a dog we don’t have to worry will be nipping at the kids; something calm and sedate and used to children.”

The baby started crying in earnest and Brenda sighed. She put the baby seat down and pulled the blankets back.

“You didn’t sleep for long enough, silly baby. Why are you awake again already?”

Erin quieted a little but still kept whining. Brenda untucked the blankets and unlocked the buckle to remove the harness. She picked up the baby and jiggled her, kissing her blond curls.

“See, Erin? It’s okay. What’s wrong, are you wet?” She checked the baby’s diaper and shook her head. “Hungry, then?”

Darren watched her, waiting for her to finish and re-engage with the conversation. Brenda dug a bottle out of the diaper bag and put the nipple in Erin’s mouth. Erin took it hungrily. Brenda shook her head.

“You’re not supposed to be hungry again already. I just fed you!”

“Maybe she had a bubble,” Darren suggested. “She wasn’t really full.”

“I suppose. Well, I’ll be a few more minutes, and then we can go.”

“Okay. I’ll put the stuff in the car.”

He left Brenda with the baby and took the crate and treats out to the car. Brenda watched Erin feed, her eyes soft and loving. She glanced around the room.

“Pretty soon we’re going to have a dog around here,” she murmured. “Oooh, you’re going to love growing up with a dog. You’re just going to love having a dog. They can be such good friends.”

She remembered the dogs she had while growing up. Especially Stanwick. He had been her best friend, her constant companion. He put up with anything she did to him and just loved her no matter what. She remembered sitting with him by the fire, taking him for walks, warming her feet underneath him as he slept on the bed. She supposed her memories were idyllic, tinted with rose-colored glasses. But it couldn’t all be fantasy. She wanted her kids to have that experience, or some version of it. There would never be another Stanwick, but there would be something else… a Bowser, or a Rover, or a Spot. Every kid had to have a dog. Everyone should be able to feel that unconditional love.

Erin made gurgling noises, spitting out the nipple of the bottle. She gave Brenda a huge three-toothed smile, babbling nonsense. Brenda kissed Erin’s round, pink cheek, a serene smile spreading across her own face. Then she bundled the baby back up again, strapped her into the baby seat, and headed out to the car to join Darren to go get the dog.

Darren came around the car as Brenda got out the baby seat, and took it from her.

“You’re the one who is going to need your hands free,” he commented. “So you can look around, and fill out the paperwork and all. I’ll just be your slave today.”

“And a very handsome one you are,” Brenda teased good-naturedly, happy to have him take the weight of the baby carrier. Darren was not naturally drawn to help her out with the childcare or the housework. And despite his rugged look, he disliked working outside, preferring instead to let Brenda or hired students take care of the yard, while he cocooned with his computers and his music. He gave Brenda a half-smile, softening his often-tense expression. They went into the animal shelter, and after explaining to the receptionist they wanted to look around at the dogs before deciding what it was they wanted, they were shown which rooms the adoptable dogs were in and left temporarily to their own devices.

Brenda was in heaven roaming between the narrow aisles of cages, looking at all the beautiful dogs waiting for new homes. She wanted to take them all. It was so sad they had to be locked up there, waiting. And some of them… some of them would end up being destroyed. Darren, trailing along behind her, rolled his eyes when she would look back at him, cooing at this dog or that.

“It would be a lot easier to do this if it wasn’t for the smell and the noise,” he complained.

“Sorry,” Brenda apologized. “Do you want to sit in the car while I do this? I guess I should have known it would bother you.”

He shook his head, determined just to plow through. Brenda looked at him, frowning. Noise and obnoxious smells were not Darren’s forte. He was the dad who would throw up over a dirty diaper. And the baby crying in the night or the other kids whining and getting rambunctious… it drove him up the wall. Brenda never quite understood how such normal, everyday life could bother him so much, but she accepted the fact that, like fingernails on a blackboard, some things were just more bothersome for some people.

“I’m going to be a while, Darren,” she warned. “This isn’t going to be quick.”

He looked around. “We’ve been to almost all the rooms,” he pointed out. “Then you can pick one out.”

Brenda shook her head. “This is just the initial tour, to narrow it down. I’m going to have to watch the ones I like for a while, find out their histories, and hold them or play with them or walk them for a while, so I can see what they are like. You can’t just pick one because it’s cute.”

“Oh… I thought that’s what you were doing,” he said, frowning.

“I like the cute ones,” Brenda admitted. “That is part of it. But not the whole thing. You wouldn’t buy a car without driving it, would you? No matter how sexy it looked.”

“No way,” he agreed immediately. “That would be stupid.” He thought about it. “So you have to kick some tires. Take them out for a test drive.”

Brenda nodded, smiling. “Yeah, you got it. But I’m not going to kick them.”

“No, of course not.” He didn’t crack a smile at her joke. “So how long are you going to be. Should I take Erin home and come back later?”

“No, no. I won’t be that long. And I might want to see how the one I pick interacts with you and Erin before I make a final decision. But it will be a while. You might want to go for a walk, or sit in the car. Go for gas or a car wash if you don’t want to just sit.”

Darren nodded. “Okay. I can do that,” he agreed.

He retreated with the baby carrier, working their route in reverse, past the noisy, stinking dogs, eventually making it back to the reception desk.

“She’s going to be a while,” he explained.

The receptionist nodded. “Of course. These things take time.”

Brenda continued to look at the dogs, wandering back and forth, reading the descriptive tags on their doors. She paid close attention to which ones were barking or wild and which ones were quieter and more sedate. She didn’t want a dog that was going to bark all night and upset Darren. Or wake the kids. It would have to be a quiet, well-behaved dog. She gradually narrowed her short list down. One of the shelter workers approached her.

“Well, how’s it going?” he asked.

“Good. I’ve got it down to three or four,” Brenda gestured at one of the dogs she had passed a couple of times.

“Excellent. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll sit down and discuss your needs? Then we can talk about the specific dogs you’ve been looking at. How does that sound?

Brenda nodded. “Sure.”

He led her back to a desk, crowded with papers and files. “Please, have a seat,” he gestured. “I’m Bill.”

“Brenda.”

Brenda sat down while he dug out a form and started with the routine questions and whether she’d had a dog before. Brenda smiled, sitting back and telling him all about Stanwick. What a beautiful, loving dog he had been. Every child’s dream best friend.

“And you’re married now, with a baby,” the man said, having noted Darren’s and Erin’s presence earlier.

“Yes. I have two other children as well; I didn’t bring them along. They’re at their grandma’s. Cassy’s two, and Bubba’s four.”

“Fun ages. We’ll have to be really careful about the dog we introduce into the family. Kids can be unpredictable and we want a dog who can manage the situation.”

“Right,” Brenda agreed.

He ran through the costs to adopt and how much they would need to maintain a dog over the years. Since they didn’t have any other pets, he gave her a list of vets in her area. Finally, he folded his hands on the desk and looked Brenda in the eye. He was an older man, a bit overweight, with a receding hairline and a fan of wrinkles around his twinkling blue eyes.

“Well. Shall we go find your dog?”

Brenda nodded eagerly, jumping to her feet. She laughed at herself. “I’m so excited about getting a dog. I feel like a kid getting up on Christmas morning.”

He chuckled good-naturedly.

Brenda led Bill to the first dog she was interested in. It was a little Yorkshire terrier. He looked up at her, head cocked to the side, waiting for her to pick him out and take him home. Bill poked his fingers through the bars to give the little fellow a scratch behind the ears.

“How are you doing, boy? Hey? How are you?” He looked at Brenda. “Not a breed I’d recommend for children,” he cautioned. “They are small, fragile, and tend to get nippy around kids. They’re really not family dogs.”

Brenda nodded. “Okay. Well, I don’t want one that could bite the kids. So…”

She led him to the next one. A bigger dog, lean and dark brown, who looked up at them hopefully, eyes rolling back a little, showing the whites.

“Ah, now he’s a nice choice,” Bill approved. “We figure he’s mostly Labrador retriever. Maybe some other breeds in the mix, but we think that’s the main one. Retrievers tend to be good family dogs.”

“I like his look,” Brenda said. “Could I handle him?”

“Sure,” Bill agreed. He unlatched the cage door and let Brenda enter.

Brenda held out her hand to the dog by way of introduction. He backed away from her, lowering himself closer to the ground.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Brenda soothed. “I’m not going to hurt you. How are you, buddy? How’s my pretty dog?”

She approached again, and the dog rolled over on his side, raising his paws for her to scratch her belly, which Brenda promptly did.

“You’re just a suck, aren’t you?” she wheedled. “You’re just a little wuss, looking for attention, aren’t you? What a nice dog.”

He whined a little, wriggling beneath her comforting touch. Brenda scratched his belly for a few minutes, then put her hand toward his head again. The dog put his head down and allowed her to scratch his ears and stroke his head.

“I think this is the one,” she told Bill. “He’s so gentle. He’ll be a great dog for the kids. So friendly.”

Bill nodded. “Okay. Why don’t you take him out for a walk, introduce him to your husband, make sure they’ll get along all right?”

Brenda nodded, smiling. She pushed a stray strand of hair back over her ear. She stood up, and the dog jumped back to his feet, yelping a bit.

“Oh, did I scare you? Silly boy!” Brenda scratched his head.

Bill pulled a collar and leash off of a nail on the wall and clicked his tongue at the dog.

“Come here, boy. Walkies.”

The dog obediently went to him and was leashed. Bill handed the leash to Brenda.

“There you go. See how you get along.”

“Heel,” Brenda ordered. The dog shied away. “Come,” she said in a lower voice, giving the leash a little tug. The dog followed, and once she got going, heeled nicely. She led him out of the building to get a little fresh air and see how they got along outside. She had taken him up and down the road a couple of times when Darren pulled up in a freshly-washed car.

“Did you choose one?” he asked when he got out of the car.

“Test drive,” Brenda explained.

He nodded.

“Come on over, and we’ll introduce you.”

Darren approached slowly. He was anxious; not a dog person.

“It’s okay, just relax,” Brenda encouraged. “Don’t act afraid. You want to act confident and relaxed, so he knows you’re in charge. You’re one of the top dogs in the pack. It’s okay; I’ve got him on a short leash. He can’t hurt you.”

Darren came up closer and held out his hand. The dog sniffed at the proffered hand and rubbed against it, acting friendly.

“He’s nice,” Darren said, sounding a little surprised.

“Yeah, he is.” Brenda was using her baby voice. “Isn’t he a nice boy?”

The dog wagged his tail, looking at the two of them. Darren scratched the dog’s ears, relaxing.

“Should I get Erin?” he asked.

Brenda nodded. “Yes. We’ll make sure he’s going to be okay around kids,” she agreed.

Darren retrieved the baby seat from the car and looked at Brenda. “What should I do?” he asked.

“Just put the carrier down on the sidewalk.”

Darren did so. Brenda let the dog get a little bit closer, still keeping the leash short. The dog sniffed curiously at the car seat, looking interested, ears pointing forward. Brenda pulled the blankets back from Erin’s face. The dog got closer, poking his nose into the car carrier, sniffing vigorously. Erin started waving her fists and babbling. Brenda watched the dog for any sign of aggression. The dog looked back up at Brenda questioningly. Brenda laughed.

“It’s a baby, silly,” she explained.

Darren looked at her with a frown.

“I was talking to the dog,” Brenda said.

“I know.”

“You think it’s weird because he can’t understand me?”

He considered. “I think it’s weird he doesn’t know what a baby is.”

“Oh.” Brenda was taken aback. “Yeah, I guess he just wasn’t in a house with a baby before.”

“Do you think that’s okay?”

“As long as everything else seems okay. We’ll ask Bill to double check his history, just to make sure we don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Okay,” he agreed. After watching the dog investigate the baby for a few more moments, he picked up the baby seat. “Just to be safe,” he said.

Brenda laughed at his nervousness. “You’re going to have to act a lot more confident around the dog or he won’t listen to anything you say. Come on, let’s go back in.”

“Are you ready?” Darren stalled. “Because I don’t want to go back in there if it’s going to be a lot longer.”

“Yes, I just have to ask Bill a few more questions, and fill out the forms. Then we’ll be out of here.”

Darren nodded. “Fine. Sounds good.”

They went back into the building, and after a few minutes managed to track down Bill, touring another visitor around. He smiled at Brenda and nodded his acknowledgment then spoke to the couple he was showing around.

“Why don’t you look around a bit? I just have a bit of paperwork to do, and then I’ll catch up with you.”

They murmured consent, and Bill broke away from them to deal with Brenda and Darren.

“And you must be Darren,” he greeted, holding out his hand.

“Yes. And you must be Bill,” Darren returned, reaching out to shake after a few awkward moments. He shook briskly and let go.

“Introductions done. So, how was he for you?” Bill asked Brenda.

“Good. I think he’s going to make a great addition to the family.”

“Excellent. Let’s just finish up the paperwork and you can take him home.”

“Can you tell me his background?” Brenda asked as they sat down at Bill’s chaotic desk again.

“Oh, sure. Let me just pull up his file.”

Bill tapped a few entries into his computer and looked at the screen.

“He was an out-of-state transfer. Probably an SPCA with an overcrowding problem. They try to send them out rather than putting them down. He was previously with an older couple. Retired.”

“And why did they give him up?”

“They died. There was no one else to take him.”

“Oh, how sad.” Brenda rubbed the dog’s ears and kissed him on the top of the head. “Poor little guy. I’ll bet you were so sad.”

Bill nodded.

“So, no experience with kids?” Brenda asked tentatively.

“Well, not in a home with kids. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t deal with them. There were probably grandkids, neighborhood kids, that kind of thing. No notes there are any problems with socialization or anything that needed to be addressed in his training or placement. And retrievers are usually good family dogs. Good with kids.”

Brenda nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“You do have a thirty-day return period,” Bill pointed out. “If you get him home and find out he is acting aggressively to your son, you just bring him right back here. We don’t want to push him on you if he’s not a good fit. We’ll find you another dog if he isn’t the right one.”

Brenda sighed. “That’s good.” She looked at Darren. “So if there are any problems, we’re not stuck with him. We can change our minds.”

“Right. That’s helpful.”

“So shall we get you signed up?” Bill asked.

Brenda nodded and broke into a grin again. “Yeah, let’s get it done,” she agreed with a big smile. She bent over to rub the dog’s head again. “Let’s get it done and take this baby home.”

Brenda got the dog settled in the kennel and put the food bowls in the kitchen. She put a dog bed on the couch so there was somewhere he could lie down comfortably without getting his fur all over the furniture. Everything looked good.

She looked at the clock, waiting for the kids to get home. She was so excited for them to get home. She felt like there should be banners hung up, saying ‘welcome home doggie.’ It felt like Christmas. She would wake up early Christmas morning before the kids were awake and lay there in excited anticipation, waiting for them to wake up so she could watch them. She loved to watch their surprise, their happy faces. For her, that was Christmas.

She looked at the clock again. Not a minute had passed. She wanted them to be home. Sighing, Brenda went to peek out the front window, just to make sure they weren’t back yet. But there was no car pulling up out front.

“They’ll be home soon,” Darren told her, noticing her anxiety.

“I know… I know. I’m just waiting…”

Finally, Brenda heard the front door open. The kids ran in, calling to her to tell her about their fun day with Grandma. Brenda smiled at her mother at the door.

“Come in, stay for a few minutes,” she invited.

Grandma Rose knew what was happening, so she nodded and waited there to watch. Brenda bent down to hug Cassy and Bubba.

“Hi, guys! Did you have a fun time?”

“Mama, we had so much fun. We played at the park and we made cookies—”

“Cool. That sounds fun. Did you have a good time too, Cassy?”

“Mama…” she wasn’t as verbal as Bubba. Words came with difficulty. Brenda waited patiently for her to get something out. “We play park; we make cookies.”

“Yes, that’s what Bubba said, isn’t it? That sounds like a fun time.”

“I play play dough,” Cassy added, looking at her brother to contradict her.

“She played play dough, I didn’t,” Bubba said, playing the superior older brother.

“Play dough is good. I have a surprise for you today.”

“Surprise?” Cassy repeated.

“What’s the surprise?” Bubba asked, looking around excitedly.

“Something really great,” Brenda teased.

Bubba started to pace the room, looking for the surprise. Brenda heard the dog yip in his kennel. Bubba had been looking under the couch and he suddenly stood straight up, listening, alert. He looked at Brenda, meeting her eye.

“Mama?” he asked tentatively.

She nodded.

“No way!” Bubba shouted. He ran out of the room to the back door, where the kennel was located. “Cassy, come here!” he shouted.

Cassy pattered after him. Brenda and Grandma Rose followed them to the back door and watched as Bubba circled the cage, looking at the dog from all angles. Cassy, staring in amazement at the dog, crouched a few feet away.

“Mama, it’s a dog!” Bubba exclaimed. “It’s a dog for us?” he demanded.

“Yes, Bubba,” she agreed.

“A dog for us!” Bubba yelled at his sister.

Cassy looked at him, her eyes sparkling.

“Doggie for us?” she echoed to him, and then she turned and looked at her mother. “Doggie for us?” she repeated.

“Yes, Cassy,” Brenda assured her.

Bubba stuck his fingers in through the bars of the kennel. The dog yipped and turned frantic circles inside the cage.

“Brenda,” Grandma Rose said warningly.

“No, Bubba,” Brenda corrected. “Don’t put your fingers in. You’re making him upset. We’ve got to keep him calm, and then you’ll be able to pat him and play with him. Okay? We have to give him a chance to get used to a new place and the new people.”

Bubba pulled back his fingers. Brenda could see he really wanted to put them back in and touch the dog.

“You’ll get to touch him, Bub. Just not right now. When an animal is in a cage, if you stick your fingers through the bars, you could get bit. Animals bite when you stick your fingers through the bars.”

“Oooh,” he said, and put his hands in his pockets.

“Mama,” Cassy tugged on her arm. “Mama, mama!”

“What is it, Cassy?”

“Mama. Doggie name?”

“Oh.” Brenda smiled down at the pudgy little girl. “The doggie doesn’t have a name yet. We have to think of one.”

“I know a name!” Bubba shouted.

“What, Bub?”

“Rover. You could call him Rover. Or Bumblebee.”

Brenda looked at him, bemused. “Bumblebee?”

“Yeah!”

“We’ll have to think about that. We have to find a name that fits him.”

“Kitty,” Cassy contributed sweetly.

“What?”

“Name Kitty.”

“But he’s a puppy, Cass.”

Cassy nodded seriously. Brenda shook her head at her silly children. She could see she was going to have to be the one to name the dog. Darren wouldn’t have any interest in it, and the children were going to pick something ridiculous. The dog deserved a proper name, like Stanwick. He’d always been happy with his name; and it was something dignified, good for a Great Dane, nice and solid. It wouldn’t work for the new dog, of course. She needed something a little warmer and friendlier. And the dog was shy. She’d have to take all those things into account in picking out a name.

“Mama, when are you going to let him out?” Bubba asked.

“Not for a while. He needs to get used to you and Cassy being around, okay? You can go find something to do now and I’ll call you for supper.”

“Is he going to eat supper?”

“He’ll eat his own supper. Dog food, not people food.”

“He dog,” Cassy contributed, directing this at Bubba.

“I know he’s a dog,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“Him eat doggie food.”

“Cassy, go away!” Bubba snapped. “You’re bugging me.”

Cassy looked at him for a minute, then left the room. Brenda raised a brow at Bubba.

“You need to be more polite to your sister. You might have hurt her feelings.”

“No, I didn’t,” Bubba assured her.

Brenda looked at him for a minute, then shrugged. “You go find something to do too. You’ll get to pat the dog later, okay?”

He rolled his eyes theatrically, and with a big sigh, headed out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and turned back.

“Mama?”

“Bub?”

“I really like the new dog. Thank you for getting him.”

Brenda smiled, her face getting warm. “Thank you, Bubba. I’m glad you like him. I think it’s going to be great having a dog around here.”

“Me too,” he agreed.

Then he left the room. Brenda looked at Grandma Rose. “Well, what do you think?”

“We should have videotaped it. That was just so sweet. They’re going to love having a dog.”

“I know,” Brenda agreed. “And me too. I’ve been waiting so long, living in all these places where we couldn’t have a dog. I’m happy to finally be able to have one.”

“And how do you think this little fella is going to do? He’s not a puppy.”

“I didn’t want a puppy. I still have two kids in diapers! I think he’s going to do great. He’s gentle and shy. He won’t be mean to the kids.”

“Good. And he doesn’t have a name yet? What are you going to call him?”

“I forgot to ask the Humane Society what his previous owners called him. I guess it doesn’t matter; I’ll train him to answer to something else. But it would have been good to know. Might help the transition.”

“Are you going to let Cassy call him Kitty?” Grandma Rose asked mischievously.

Brenda laughed. “No, not a chance. You can’t call a dog Kitty; it’ll get an inferiority complex!”

“Cats think they are superior. Maybe it will give him a superiority complex.”

Brenda giggled. She turned around to face the counter. “Do you want a coffee?” she asked.

“I would love one. Then I’d better leave you to supper.”

Brenda put some coffee grounds in the machine and leaned against the counter while she waited for it to perc.

“So, how were the kids at your house?”

“Good, as always. Not much fighting today. Bubba is getting better with Cassy.”

“And she’s getting to be more and more like a little person. Bubba’s getting rambunctious, I’ll be glad when he’s in kindergarten. He needs more to keep his attention. Somebody else watching him so I don’t have to do it all day.”

“Don’t wish away your time. Enjoy it while he is still a preschooler and don’t wish he was older all the time. You’ll miss these days when they are all teenagers.”

“I know. But he’s at a sort of awkward, in-between age. I think he’s ready for school.”

“Good. Better for him to start when he’s ready than too early. And if Cassy’s in preschool half days, then you’ll be able to spend some quality time with the baby. And the dog!”

“I’m looking forward to it. I think I might get back into running. It will be good for me, and the dog will keep me going out.”

Brenda let the dog out of the kennel. She carefully put the leash on the dog, murmuring to him.

“There, that’s a good boy,” she approved. “You sit nice for me, don’t you? Good boy.”

The dog whined slightly and lay down on the floor, raising his paws for her to scratch his belly. Brenda smiled and rubbed his stomach.

“There you go, you wuss.”

She waited for him to get back up, and then put her hand on his head.

“Good boy. Stay.”

She waited until he seemed calm and settled, then called for the kids.

“Cassy, Bubba, you can come in and see the dog now.”

The children ran across the house to the kitchen and cooed excitedly over the dog. Brenda patted him to keep him calm.

“Okay, come over here, and move slow. Show him the back of your hand. Let him smell you.”

“Like this?” Bubba asked, holding out his hand toward the dog.

“Yup, that’s right. Just sit there and let him smell you for a minute.”

Bubba kept still, holding his hand there. The dog sniffed him for a few minutes, and then rubbed against Bubba’s hand. Bubba grinned.

“He likes me!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, he does,” Brenda agreed. “You’re doing a good job.”

“Me?” Cassy asked.

Brenda nodded. “Just like Bubba,” she agreed, “show him your hand first.”

“’Kay,” Cassy agreed.

She squatted close to the dog and held out her hand, trying to move exactly as Bubba had. The dog sniffed at her, and eventually he rubbed against her hand too.

“Like him,” Cassy cooed.

“Yes, you like him, and he likes you.”

Brenda rubbed the dog’s head. “You’re a good dog. Aren’t you doing so well to sit here quietly,” Brenda said.

The dog rolled his eyes back. Brenda continued to rub his head affectionately.

Cassy left and came back with a bag of doggie treats in her hand.

“Him eat?” she asked.

Brenda laughed. “You’re too smart for your own good, aren’t you?” she accused.

She took the bag from Cassy. The dog sat up, very interested in the bag of treats. He sniffed and nosed at it and pawed at it with his front paw. He whined, a high-pitched whine.

“Be patient,” Brenda remonstrated. “You’ll get some.”

She opened up the bag and pulled a biscuit out. She held it in her hand.

“Do you want a treat?” she asked.

The dog strained to get at it. He yelped. Brenda held it still, waiting.

“Sit,” she ordered.

After a moment of straining for the treat, the dog did. He sat there, watching the treat, his body shivering with anticipation.

“Good dog. Lie down?”

The dog didn’t move.

“Lie down,” Brenda repeated more firmly this time, and she held the treat close to the ground. The dog moved toward it to snatch it away from her.

“No. Lie down,” Brenda snapped, pulling the treat away. “Come on. Sit.” The dog behaved. “Now lie down.”

She pressed on his shoulder and reluctantly, he obeyed.

“Good boy. Now stay.”

There was a noise in his throat halfway between a whine and a growl, sort of a grumble, and the dog kept his head down between his paws, watching her movements. Brenda waited, watching for any movement. Once satisfied, she held the treat out.

“Good boy. Here’s your treat.”

He snatched it from her hand so sharply it made Brenda jump.

“You are impatient, aren’t you? Well, at least you stayed like you were supposed to. We’ll have to work on that. Grabbing is rude, you know.”

“Rude,” Cassy echoed.

“That’s right,” Brenda said.

“He does good tricks,” Bubba declared. “Doesn’t he, Mama?”

“He does well. But he needs a bit of polish. I think he might have been spoiled a bit at his last home. We have to make sure he knows there are rules here. That will keep everybody happy.”

“Daddy doesn’t like him,” Bubba said.

Brenda frowned. “What? Did Daddy say that?”

Bubba shook his head. He assumed a different posture. It was obvious he was imitating his father.

“That dog better stay off of the couch and not jump up on me,” he said in a lofty voice.

Brenda rolled her eyes. “Well, like I said, we’ll teach him to follow the rules, and then everybody will be happy. Including Daddy. Because the dog won’t get fur all over the couch or jump on Daddy. Will he?” She directed this at the dog, who looked up at her while crunching his biscuit and had no answer for her.

“But you put his bed on the couch,” Bubba pointed out. “So how can you make him stay off of it?”

“He can only sleep on his bed. That will keep fur from getting on the rest of the couch. It’s okay if he sleeps on his part of the couch, just not on Daddy’s!”

“Or mine,” Cassy put in.

“Okay, or yours,” Brenda agreed. “He’ll stay off everyone’s part of the couch, and he’ll only sleep on his bed.”

“Okay,” Bubba said uncertainly. “I suppose so…”

Brenda shook her head at the attitude and mannerisms he picked up from his father even when he wasn’t mimicking him. It was cute.

“How about Jake?”

Darren rolled over in bed, trying to pry his eyes open and focus in on Brenda.

“What?” he asked muzzily.

“For the dog’s name. I like Jake.”

Darren wiped his face with both hands. “Yeah. I like Jake just fine,” he agreed.

“Is it too simple? Too common? I want a good name, but not something everyone else has used.”

Darren cleared his throat. “No, you’re right,” he agreed.

“So you think it’s too common of a name?”

“I think it’s up to you. Do you think it’s too common?”

He couldn’t figure out why she was bringing this up in the middle of the night when he was half-asleep after a long day’s work. Why would he care what she named the dog? As long as the dog knew its name and responded to it.

“Oh, you’re no help,” she snapped.

Darren analyzed her tone. Was she playful, or really irritated? Had he screwed up?

“Sorry,” he said slowly.

“No, you’re right. It’s my choice. You don’t even like the dog.”

This time, he was pretty sure she was being sarcastic. Darren had no clue where this was coming from. He thought he had been very supportive of her desire to get a dog. He’d even gone to the pound with her.

“I like the dog fine,” he said. “Did I tell you I didn’t like it?”

“You apparently told the kids.”

“The kids… no, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”

“Bubba thought you did. So you do like him? You’re not mad about me getting him?”

“No. I wanted you to be happy.”

“Oh, good. Well, think about Jake, okay? Do you think it’s a good name for him?”

Darren took a deep breath. He lay there staring at the ceiling, counting the seconds. He wanted her to think he was thinking deeply about this. It was somehow important to her. So he gave it due consideration before coming up with an answer.

“He looks like a Jake,” he said. “I think that’s a clever name. Do you think it suits him?”

“Yes, I really do. I look at him, and I think, ‘that’s Jake.’”

“Well then, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, does it? If that’s the right name for him, who cares how many other Jakes there are out there?”

Brenda nodded excitedly. “You’re so right! I know a lot of people didn’t like ‘Bubba,’ but that didn’t stop us from naming him Bubba. It was just the right name for him, and if anyone didn’t like it, then too bad. It suits him.”

“Right,” Darren agreed. He had never admitted it to her, but he was one of those who didn’t like the name Bubba. But over the years, it had grown on him, and now he couldn’t imagine his son named anything else. The name had grown on him, or Bubba had grown into it. Now, Darren was convinced it had been the right choice. And if she needed confirmation the dog’s name was right, he was happy to supply her with that too.

“Bubba is Bubba,” he said with finality. “And the dog is Jake. Let’s celebrate in the morning.”

Brenda made a little cheer and cuddled up under his chin, making a purring sound. “You’re the best, Darren. You always know what to say.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, tightened his arms around her to give her a squeeze, and closed his eyes to go back to sleep again.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Loose the Dogs

By P.D. Workman

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