An excerpt from the novella, Touch, included in my short story collection NATURE’S FIFTH SEASON. Touch is the one story that got to both my husband and a male critique partner. Of all the stories in the collection, I get the most mail regarding Touch and Dear Maddy, both written while finishing edits for my publisher on another book.
“He’s too much dog for you, Becca,” he heard the man say. “A German Shepherd-Malinois mix is going to be a handful. Not the kind of dog for a young girl. He’s more what our K9 unit uses.”
Being a dog, he had no idea what the man meant by too much dog. But the girl, Becca, glanced at him again, and he did know what a smile meant. Grateful for any scrap of attention he got these days, he happily thumped his tail against the cement floor of the kennel in response.
“I’m fourteen, Dad. Not eight. And he looks more Malinois than Shepherd,” Becca replied. “That’s smaller.”
“But still far too much energy.” The man smelled almost the same as the girl, which meant he was part of her pack.
He stared up at them both, cocking his head from one side to the other—something he’d learned made people smile at him. It worked. While neither actually smiled ear to ear, the slight upturn at the corners of their mouths meant he’d softened them up.
He needed to get out of here. Here being what humans called The Pound. The Pound smelled of fear, disease, and death. Dogs didn’t stay here for much longer than a few weeks before they were taken to The Room. Once there, they never returned to their kennel. It might not have been obvious to the visitors here that something bad was about to happen, but every dog in every kennel read it in the faces of the people whose job it was to take one of them to The Room. Afterward, someone came to clean the kennel and take down the information posted about the dog who’d once been there.
In a matter of a day or a few hours, another dog would take its place.
Going to The Room wasn’t the only time a dog left their kennel, though. Like the others here, once or twice a day, he was taken out into an enclosed yard where he could feel the sun, smell the air, and have something other that concrete beneath his feet. The yard wasn’t very big—about the size of eight or nine kennels—but it felt wonderful nonetheless. Those trips never lasted long, though. After a few minutes, someone always brought him back to his kennel. In his absence, his kennel would be hosed down with water and a lot of bleach. The bleach burned his nose and often his skin when he lay down to sleep. It made his paws itch and crack. Sometimes they bled.
Other times, dogs were taken out to the yard with people who came to see them. Sometimes, they returned to their kennel. Every now and then, they went home with a new family. When a dog had been chosen to go home with a family, there was always a lot of excitement. People acted differently. He’d seen it happen for other dogs.
Smaller dogs and puppies were more likely to find a new home. Dogs like him—large, adult, and being of a mixed breed—were often overlooked. Worse, he’d been here awhile. The food was the foulest he’d ever eaten—often stale or tasting like cardboard and salt. No one brushed him. Since being here, his hair had started to thin and fall out in places. He’d lost weight.
“Too thin,” someone had recently said. “There must be something wrong with him.”
If Becca and the man thought there was something wrong with him, they didn’t say it aloud. He took in every nuance of their expressions, searching for a sign they might take him to The Yard.
His time for The Room was close. He could see it in the faces of those who fed him. He heard it in their tone when they talked to him and read the information sheet pinned to the kennel door.
“Sorry, buddy,” one of them had said. “You would’ve been a great dog.”
His people, the ones he’d known since he was nine weeks old and had come to call his pack, had left him here weeks ago. For the first two weeks he watched and waited for their return. Every new footstep, every person who ventured down the row of kennels might mean they’d returned for him. If they did, he could almost forget the hands that often hurt him, the disapproving looks, the yelling. The days and nights he’d spent outside, hearing their voices inside the house, their laughter, and wishing he could be with them.
Two weeks had turned to nearly a month.
What had he done that had been so wrong? Why did they stop loving him? When had he stopped being a great dog, and what could he do to prove he still was?
After he sensed his time for The Room was near, he’d finally given up hope that his pack would come for him. That anyone would.
Here, dogs didn’t have toys, beds, or even names. Instead of Ranger, people called him Number C-18 Shepherd/Malinois, male, two years old. C-18 for short.
Now, he looked up into the face of the girl and the man in front of his kennel, eyes pleading. He whined softly. He’d done this countless times before. He tried everything he knew to make people notice him, to be a great dog.
Some of those who came here stopped to pet him for a little while. Most walked past his kennel, though, oblivious to his fear, his worry, or the hunger he had from not eating nearly enough. He’d bark, frantic, but that often made some afraid, and they walked farther away. Pawing at the chain link on the kennel didn’t do much, either. Most of the time, it only served to break open the cracks in his paws and he’d bleed again.
“Too hyper,” someone had once said.
“Too aggressive,” said another.
He no longer believed there was anything more than this for him—the kennel, the other barking dogs, the terrible food, the smell of chemicals, and eventually, The Room. So he simply lay quietly in his kennel, barely noticing the people as they walked by.
“Too calm. Too aloof. Maybe he’s sick,” he heard some people say. He had no idea how he could be one thing to some yet completely opposite to others. He only knew that they weren’t going to save him from The Room. That even in doing nothing, he’d done something to turn them away.
But today, hope stirred from some forgotten place deep inside him. This girl seemed different. The way she looked at him felt different.
He wagged his tail again.
“You’re always telling me that girls can do whatever guys can. I can handle him. This is the dog, Dad. I know it. I even have a name for him—Colt.” Becca knelt and put her fingers against the cage. “Right, Colt?”
He cocked his head again. Colt? It sounded much better than C-18.
“Naming him already?” The man laughed.
Becca and the man exchanged a few more words and then they walked away.
He watched Becca and the man walk down the row of kennels. When they turned the corner, he whined only once, then lay down and let out a sigh and rested his head between his paws. The fleeting feeling of hope had given way to the strong smell of bleach and despair.
Dogs around him continued to bark. These were the newcomers, those who hadn’t learned that barking wouldn’t do them any good. He closed his eyes and tuned them out. With the man and Becca gone, there wasn’t anything worth seeing.
Will Colt go home with Becca? How does their story turn out? Who rescues whom? At just $.99, one click it to read Colt and Becca’s heartwarming story along with four other tales in NATURE’S FIFTH SEASON. Book reviewer with a blog and a social media presence? Like short stories and have a love of the paranormal? Contact me for a review copy.
Available at these retailers: