This month, we have been invited to post a snippet of our work in lieu of our round robin discussions. However, I don’t have anything seasonally appropriate just yet. Instead, I am going to be brazen and shove a rough draft up here.
This is from my current work in progress, which is tentatively titled Every Prayer But One.
I hope everyone has been enjoying the holidays!
It was a noisome building, filled with the insistent barking of animals in their pens and the occasional meow from those more personable cats in residence. The sign over the door read Almost Home Animal Shelter and as Michael stepped over the threshold, he was accosted by the smells so many animals could produce. He rubbed his nose.
One long counter ran the length of the wall to his left and he was reminded at once of a pub; all nicked wood and history, with a small space open so that the attendant could stand behind it. Except that there were large windows here, both open to fight against the lingering smell, and the room was brightly lit.
And there was no bartender.
The wall behind the counter housed another window, this one looking into the room beyond where a tall figure in overalls and rainboots was scrubbing one of the kennels with a long, yellow-bristled brush. Her dark hair was doing its best to escape the bun at the base of her neck, and she glowed from exertion. Canine faces peered out of their gates, all turned to watch the woman’s progress, and he was able to pinpoint the more vocal creatures now, one in particular with a cone wrapped around his neck.
There were no chain-link fences like he’d been expecting, and he loosened the grip on his keys. Each animal was separated by wooden partitions, allowing some privacy and giving the appearance of a small room rather than a kennel, save for the gated doors that allowed access from in the bay and outside. It was not at all like the dreary, sad place he’d seen featured in cartoons as a child and his estimation of the owner rose exponentially.
“Can I help you?”
He turned. There were three other doors in the building, each leading to kennel bays with paned windows for easy viewing from the front foyer. The freckled blonde standing in the door labeled “Cats” was watching him with a mix of annoyance and curiosity, her eyebrow hiked up as he took his time responding.
They were busy. He should come back another time.
But outside in the parking lot was his dreadfully silent truck and he steeled himself. “My name is Michael York. I called yesterday and was told to stop by…”
The girl’s face underwent a dramatic transformation; one moment annoyed and the next lit with understanding and pity. Michael cleared his throat and glanced away. Eighteen months later and he still wasn’t used to that look; the one that said without speaking that he was a widower, that he was due all consideration and space that polite society had to give.
While he couldn’t say precisely what he would prefer – his wife back from the dead and the last three years erased, possibly – he knew for a fact that he didn’t want either consideration or space.
“The border collie?” the girl asked.
“I’ll go get Sarah.”
Giving a brief thanks, he glanced over his shoulder at the open door to the parking lot. His green truck sat prominent in the nearest space with its windows open to the October air. The border collie in question couldn’t be seen through the windshield, but he knew she was sprawled in the seat, head on her front paws, disinterested in all things.
Fresh grief washed through him and for a heartbeat he struggled to breathe. So many things had changed after Laura died that he hadn’t noticed the pup was in distress. There’d been whining, of course. Days and days of whining and pacing where Delta hunted the house, waiting for Laura to come home.
Heartbreaking, to be sure, and if he was honest with himself there’d been days he almost asked Laura a question, expecting her to be in the next room or something. Her shadow was everywhere in the house, lingering but still somehow gone.
Sarah turned out to be none other than the overall-wearing, brush-wielding woman he’d spied earlier. Her rainboots glistened with soapy water, and she left footprints on the tile as she strode forward, hand outstretched. He took the hand by instinct and shook it, not at all surprised to find her grip firm as she introduced herself.
“I’m Sarah Riley, we spoke on the phone yesterday.”
She had a pleasant face, perhaps too round to be called pretty these days, but her expression was more of concern than pity and Michael felt another knot loosen in his back. At least he would not have to endure condolences from another stranger, no matter how well-meaning.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” he said as they turned for the door.
“It’s not a problem,” Sarah said. “When was the last time Delta ate?”
He exhaled, pleased to be getting to the heart of his problem so soon. “I got her to take some roast beef by hand last night, but it wasn’t much. I know table scraps aren’t healthy…”
“At least it was something.”
Michael wasn’t certain if he heard censure in her voice or not, and truly he didn’t care. He was at his wits end and had to do something. Laura had rescued the dog at four months old, thinking their active lifestyle was a perfect match for Delta’s high energy. And even after the diagnosis, back when they’d thought Laura could fight her way through the cancer, the dog had been a constant motivator that took them outdoors.
This was her dog; he couldn’t let the creature die.
They stopped at the passenger’s side of his truck and Sarah peered inside. Delta lay just as he’d left her, one blue eye and one brown eye watching the window but otherwise unmoving. She was merle patterned, sable spots peppering white fur, mixing in places to make grey freckles across her muzzle and back. He had an image of her the day Laura brought her home; still young enough that her white legs looked lanky paired with a slender body, and a muzzle shorter than it was now by a good inch, everything in her face clinging to puppy phase. But what caught him then, as it did now, was the way her ears stood only half upright, folding down at the tips so that they danced whenever she walked.
“Well, hello beautiful,” Sarah said, leaning against the door so she could cross her arms on the window frame.
Delta did not seem impressed.
Nonplussed, Sarah continued; “Want to go for a little walk with me?”
Taking that as his cue, Michael opened the door and took Delta’s leash. The dog obliged, albeit slowly, and jumped from the seat. Sarah was already reaching for the leash, cooing at his dog in real admiration, and Michael found himself handing control over to this stranger with a mix of pride and uncertainty. He wanted Delta to get better, but an accusing voice in the back of his head insisted that he should be the one to fix his dog.
Didn’t it say something about his state of mind that he wasn’t capable of working this out on his own?
Still, he watched Sarah take the leash and turn Delta toward the woods. His dog walked sedately next to her, tail drooping in a further display of distress, and he had a pang in his chest at the sight. He couldn’t remember the last time her tail was up, its white tip wagging like a flag as she chased a ball or a frisbee.
“She’ll be all right,” said the freckled woman from before.
She’d managed to walk up while he was distracted, and it was only when she propped a hand on her hip that he noticed the swell of pregnancy under her shirt. Her smile was full of compassion and curiosity, and she nodded out at where Sarah neared the tree line on the other side of the parking lot.
“Sarah’s a bit of an animal whisperer. She’ll find a way to help.”
Michael found some comfort in the girl’s words, even if he didn’t subscribe to the idea of animal whisperer’s in general. Then again, he didn’t have faith in much these days.
He crammed his hands into his pockets and watched as Sarah and Delta disappeared into the autumnal forest. Most of the greenery had bled into burnished shades of orange and red, but here and there was a splash of bright yellow from sugar maples, and there was the occasional pine tree standing defiant against the weather change. Laura would have photographed it.
The thought knifed across his heart and he turned to shut the truck door, perhaps more forcefully than he’d intended. Thankfully, the girl didn’t flinch. Instead, she looked back to the shelter and heaved a sigh. The barking hadn’t ceased, and he could see a few other shapes through the windows, probably more people caring for the animals.
Tall white fences stretched to either side of the building and he realized with a start that there were people out playing fetch with various dogs. None of them were paying him any mind, but he felt somehow exposed, as though everyone were aware of his circumstances and his poor, ailing Delta.
It was ridiculous, of course. These people didn’t know him. They certainly didn’t know Delta, so he put the whole feeling down as a residual effect of the funeral. Too many eyes had followed his every move those first weeks, it was no wonder he was paranoid now.
“Well, those litter pans aren’t going to scoop themselves. I should get back in,” the girl said and took a step to leave. But she paused and gave him another smile. “I’m Lisette, by the way.”
He gave his name again, awkwardly realizing she already knew it from before, and kicked himself. His wits weren’t exactly up to par.
Lisette grinned but thankfully didn’t tease him. Instead, she asked; “When Sarah gets back, could you tell her that the volunteers who were going to fix the food shed cancelled?”
“Food shed?” he asked.
She nodded over at a sad little structure set off to the side of the shelter. Blue tarp was lashed across its roof and he could see one side sagging. That wasn’t going to hold up through winter, make no mistake.
“We’re going to end up fixing it ourselves at this rate,” Lisette said.
“What happened to it?”
Lisette shrugged. “A thunderstorm took down a tree branch, which crashed its way through the roof.”
The last big thunderstorm had been several weeks ago, he knew. Delta hated storms and he’d been forced to wrap her in a special blanket for the night.
He frowned. “How much food did you lose?”
“At least half,” Lisette said, becoming more animated, “But Pastor Annie put the call out that following Sunday and we got a ton of donations. Sarah says we have more now than we did before the shed broke, so that’s good. We put what we could in the attic and the rest is under the tarp.”
“Well, you’re not going to want that tarp through the winter.”
They lapsed into a brief silence before Lisette, remembering she had work to do, flashed a smile and hurried back inside. Michael leaned against his truck and watched the rotation of dogs through the yard. Most of the handlers were proficient, giving each animal time to stretch their legs, do their business, and zoom for a ball. There were a few unpracticed hands that interrupted the rhythm, but no one could say the animals here weren’t loved and cared for.
Not that they should stay, of course. For better or worse, this was a kennel and each pet inside deserved a home of their own, but it seemed that Sarah Riley was doing her utmost to keep them happy while they were here.
Maybe his brother hadn’t been off his rocker to send him here after all.
It was some time before Sarah emerged from the woods again, Delta in tow. Michael squinted at them as they approached, trying to see if there was any improvement in his dog’s demeanor, but her tail was still down.
That was to be expected, he coached himself. It had taken a year and a half to get to this point, one meeting with a stranger wasn’t going to miraculously cure the creature. Still, he held his breath and waited for Sarah’s assessment as she delivered Delta to him.
“Well, Mr. York, she’s grieving,” Sarah said and reached down to smooth back Delta’s ears.
Michael ground his teeth. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
She gave him a sharp look, hazel eyes alight with challenge, but seemed to master herself in the next instant. “You said you already took her to the vet and nothing physical was wrong with her?”
“Yes,” he said, wrestling for patience.
They’d been over this on the phone.
She hummed and continued to stroke Delta’s head, who sat quietly beside her. “Did you know, Mr. York, that there are some breeds of dog who love their masters so much that when the two are parted, the dog simply shuts down? They don’t eat, they don’t drink, they just wait to die.”
He looked down at Delta. Her mismatched eyes stared unblinking at the truck door, still disinterested, still lost, and Michael felt his gut clench. “Is that what she’s doing? Waiting to die?”
“If we let her.”
The words were quiet and heavy, delivered with a matter-of-fact tone that held no malice. Michael was grateful for that much. He knew it was his fault that Delta had fallen so far into her depression, he’d practically watched it happen over the course of several months, but Sarah had the grace not to point this out.
Another consideration, he supposed.
He was a widower, who could truly blame him?
Heaven help him, he hated that word; widower.
Clearing his throat, he met Sarah’s patient gaze. “What can we do?”
If she noticed how hoarse he sounded, she didn’t mention it. Her attention switched to Delta and she heaved a little sigh. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain grief to you, Mr. York. It’s not something we can fix, and it’s not going away. But there are some things we can do.”
“Remind her that she’s not alone.” Sarah rubbed the back of her neck and looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Look, I know this is going to sound weird, but my dog is particularly good at helping others. She seems to sense anxiety and has a way of putting other animals at ease. If you’re willing, I’d like the two dogs to meet.”
“You’re right, that does sound weird.”
They both chuckled and Sarah shrugged, leaving the decision to him.
“Beyond that,” she said, crouching down to give Delta more attention, “you can try canned cat food. It has a stronger smell and might get her to eat a little more. It’s not recommended for the long run, but some food is better than no food.”
Michael regarded his dog, watching the way she endured Sarah’s affections. It wasn’t clear whether Delta appreciated the attention or not, but neither was she snarling for Sarah to stop. She simply did not care, and that, above anything else, made his decision his decision for him.
“When would you like the dogs to meet?”
Take a look at some other snippets from my fellow authors! They are all wonderful human beings and I count myself lucky to be able to participate in this Round Robin every month.
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1Ng
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/