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The last thing Nina Askew needed was Fred.
"I want a puppy," she said to the brown-uniformed woman behind the scarred metal counter at Riverbend Animal Control. "Something perky."
"Perky." The woman sighed. "Sure. We got perky." She jerked her head toward the gray metal door at the end of the counter. "Through there, one step down."
"Right." Nina shoved her short dark curls behind her ears, grabbed her purse and walked through the door, determined to pick herself out the perkiest birthday present on four paws. So what if yesterday had been her fortieth birthday? Forty was a good age for a woman. It meant freedom. Especially freedom from her overambitious ex-husband and their overpriced suburban castle which had finally sold after a year of open-house hell. There was something good: she was out of that damn house.
And now she was forty. Well, she was delighted to be forty. After all, that was the reason she was getting a dog of her own.
The attendant joined her and said, "This way," and Nina followed her toward yet another heavy metal door. She was going to get a puppy. She’d always wanted a dog, but Guy hadn’t understood." Dogs shed," he’d said when she’d suggested they get one as a wedding present to each other. She should have known that was A Sign. But no, she’d married him anyway and moved into that designer mausoleum of a house. And then she’d spent fifteen years following her husband’s career around, without a dog, in a house she’d grown to hate. Sixteen years in the house, if she counted this last year in divorced-woman limbo, waiting for it to sell. But now she had freedom and an apartment of her own and a great, if precarious, job. The only thing she needed was a warm, cheerful body to come home to.
The attendant opened the door, and the faint barking Nina had heard before became frantic and shrill. Nina stepped into the concrete cell block and stopped, blown out of her self-absorption by the row of gray metal cages where dogs barked to get her attention. She let her breath out, horrified. "Oh, God, this is awful."
"Spay your pets." The attendant stopped in front of the next to last cage. "Here you go." She jerked her head again. "Perky."
Nina went to join the woman and peered into the cage. The pups were darling -- some sort of tiny, bright-eyed, spotted
mixed breed -- climbing over one another and tumbling and whining and barking. Perky as hell. Now all she had to do was choose one . . .
She moved closer and glanced in the last cage almost by accident. Then she froze.
There was only one dog in the cage, and it was midsize and depressed, too big for her apartment and too melancholy for her
state of mind. Nina tried to turn back to the puppies, but somehow, she couldn’t. The dog had huge bags under his dark eyes,
and hunched shoulders, and a white coat blotched with what looked like giant liver spots. He sat on the damp concrete like a bulked-up vulture and stared at her, not barking, not moving. He looked like her great-uncle Fred had before he’d died when
she was six. She’d liked her uncle Fred, and then one day his heart had gone, as her mother had put it, and that had been it.
"Hello," she said, and the dog lifted his head a little, so she stooped down and reached through the cage doors to scratch
him behind the ears. He looked at her and then closed his eyes in appreciation for the scratch.
"What’s wrong with him?" Nina asked the attendant.
"Nothing," the attendant said. "He’s part basset, part beagle." She checked the card on his cage. "Or he might be psychic.
This is his last day."
Nina’s eyes opened wide. "You mean . . ."
"Yep." The attendant sliced her hand across her throat.
Nina looked back at the dog. The dog looked back at Nina, death in his eyes.
She stood and shoved her hair behind her ears, trying to look efficient and practical in an effort to be efficient and
practical. She did not need this dog. She needed a happy, perky puppy, and on his best day, this dog would look like a professional mourner. And he wasn’t even a puppy.
Any dog but this one.
She looked down at the dog one last time, and her hair fell forward, a curly black frame for his depression. He bowed his
head a little as if it had grown too heavy for him, and his ears sagged with the bow.
She could not take this dog. He was too depressed. He was too big. He was too old. She took a step back, and he sighed and lay down, not expecting anything at all, resigned to the cold hard floor and no one to love him and the certainty of death in the morning.
Nina turned to the attendant, and said, "I’ll take him."
The attendant raised an eyebrow. "That’s your idea of perky?"
Nina gestured to the puppies. "They’ll all be adopted, right?"
Nina took one long last glance at the tumbling, chubby puppies. Prozac with four legs and a tail. Then she looked at the other dog, depressed, alone, too old to be cute anymore if he ever had been. "I have a lot in common with this dog," she told the attendant. "And besides, I’d never sleep again knowing I could have saved him and didn’t."
The attendant shook her head. "You can’t save them all."
"Well, I can save this one." Nina crouched to the dog’s level. "It’s okay, Fred. I just rescued your butt."
The dog rolled his eyes up to stare at her.
"No, don’t thank me. Glad to do it for you." Nina stood up and followed the attendant down the hall. At the end, she
turned, and Fred moved forward, pressing his nose through the bars. "Hey, it’s okay," Nina called to him. "I’m coming right back as soon as I get you sprung from this joint."
Fred moaned and stumbled back into the depths of the cage.
"Oh, yeah, you’re going to cheer me up," Nina said and went to sign the papers and pay the fee.
He didn’t get much happier when the attendant opened the cage and he waddled out into Nina’s arms, fragrant beyond belief. "You stink, Fred," she told him, and then she picked him up and held him to her, telling herself that her silk suit was dry-cleanable, and that at least it was brown and so was a lot of Fred so the dog hair wouldn’t show. He looked up at her and she added, "And you weigh a ton." He was like dead weight in her arms, round and bulky, and most of his weight seemed to be centered in his rear end, which gave him a definite droop as she balanced his hip on hers. Still, as much as he reeked, it felt good to have her arms wrapped around him. "I saved you, Fred," she whispered into his ear, and he twitched as her breath tickled him, patient but not by any means enthused about the new turn of events.
He perked up a little when she carried him out into the May sunlight, but he seemed annoyed when she tried to balance all of his weight on one hip while she maneuvered open the door to her white Civic.
"I was planning . . . on getting . . . a puppy," she told him, breathing hard as she used her other hip to push the car door farther open. "I wasn’t planning . . . on getting a . . . part basset . . . part beagle . . . part lead-ass." She managed to heave him into the seat and close the door, and then she leaned against the car to get her breath back. Fred rocked back and forth as he situated himself on the blue upholstery, and then he turned and smeared his nose on the window. "Good." Nina sighed. "Make yourself at home."
She got in the Civic and stuck the key in the ignition. Fred put his paws on the window ledge and smeared his nose higher.
Nina thought longingly of the puppies. "You’re making me ill." She leaned across him and began to roll down the window halfway. "Don’t jump out. Things just got better for you."
Fred turned at the sound of her voice, and as she stretched over him still cranking the window, he looked deep into her
eyes. Nina stopped rolling and stared back into the warm brown depths. He really was a sweet dog. Of course he wasn’t being peppy. In his situation, she’d be cautious, too. He didn’t know anything about her. She didn’t know anything about where he’d been. Maybe his previous people had been mean to him. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he needed love. Everybody needed love. Even she needed love. And now she had Fred.
Nina closed her eyes. Terrific. She had Fred. Even her best friend was going to think she was nuts. "You bought a what?" Charity was going to say, and then when she saw Fred, middle-aged, broken-down and tired, she was going to -- Nina looked into Fred’s patient brown eyes again and felt ashamed. "It’s okay, Fred." She stroked the top of his head. "You’re my dog now. It’s okay."
Fred met her eyes, squared his shoulders, and lunged at her, licking her from chin to forehead with one sweeping slurp.
"Oh, Fred." Nina burst into tears and wrapped her arms around him. His body was fat and warm and wriggly, and Nina hugged him tighter, so glad to have someone alive in her life again and so relieved to finally be able to cry out the frustration and loneliness that she didn’t even care the someone had four legs and smelled like rank canine. "We’re going to
be so happy, Fred," she told him, sobbing. "We really are. We’re going to be wonderful together."
Fred sighed and began to lick the tears from her face, which made Nina cry even harder. It was the best she’d felt in weeks.
She gave one final sniff and let go of Fred to put the car in gear so she could show him his new home and call his aunt
Charity to come meet him.
"You have family now, Fred," she told him. "You’re going home."
Alex Moore was stretched out on a bed in an empty examining room in the Riverbend General ER, trying to forget his family and get some sleep before another emergency erupted when his older brother came in and dropped a brown paper bag with a six-pack of beer in it on his stomach.
"Hey!" Alex curled to absorb the blow and then saw it was Max and stretched back out again. Pain in conjunction with his family was nothing new. "I’m sleeping. Go away. And take that damn beer with you before somebody sees it."
Max pulled the beer out of the sack and peeled off a can. He popped the tab and left the five remaining beers on Alex’s
stomach as he collapsed into an orange plastic chair. The chair scraped and screeched on the floor, and Max’s purple
silk shirt clashed against the green wall. Alex winced and closed his eyes, hoping Max would take the hint and leave.
Max didn’t. "You know, if you didn’t spend your nights chasing women, you wouldn’t get this tired during your shifts," he said and sipped his beer.
Alex didn’t bother to open his eyes. "I did not spend my night chasing a woman. I took Debbie to dinner. She started
talking about kids. I took her home. Story of my love life."
"It’s because you’ve got that blond good-guy look," Max told him. "You’ve got nice guy written all over you. Now me, I look like a rat."
Alex kept his eyes closed as a hint. "Yeah, you do. Go away, rat."
"Of course, it’s too late to pretend you’re a rat around here since everybody knows you. You should have changed the subject. ‘Speaking of kids, Debbie, how about some sex?’ You got to learn to be faster on your feet."
Alex thought about snarling at him to go away and decided against it. He liked Max, and given his family, a relative he was usually happy to see was a rarity. "I don’t want to be faster on my feet. I just want to spend some nice quiet evenings with a woman who wants me more than she wants kids or a wedding ring. All the women I know have biological clocks and a burning need to commit. I want a woman who has a burning need to be with me and watch old movies and laugh. But right now,
all I want is to sleep, which is why you’re leaving."
Max swallowed some more beer. "It’s because you’re a doctor. Women always want to marry doctors."
Alex opened one eye. "You’re a doctor. How come it doesn’t happen to you?"
"I try not to date anybody more than twice," Max said. "It keeps the subject from coming up."
"That’s real mature of you, Max." Alex closed his eye again. "Now go away. For once there are no disasters out there, and I need some sleep."
Max sipped his beer again. "This is your last day as a twenty-something, kid. How does it feel to be old?"
"You tell me," Alex said. "You’re the one pushing forty."
"Thirty-six is not forty," Max said with dignity. "And you’re going to lose your hair before I do. It’s already creeping
back from your forehead. I can see it from here." He tipped the beer into his mouth this time and sucked up the last half of the can.
"Tell me you’re not still doing rounds."
"Finished an hour ago." Max pitched the can into a nearby wastebasket and slumped, as much as he could, in the plastic
chair. "You off soon?"
"Three more hours. Go away."
"So you ready for tomorrow?"
"It’s my birthday," Alex said with his eyes shut. "It’s not something I have to get ready for. Other people have to get
ready for it. You, for example. Go buy me something expensive. You make the big bucks."
"Exactly," Max said. "And you know why."
Alex groaned and rolled away from his brother, who lunged to get the five-pack of beer as it tipped toward the floor.
"Hey!" Max said. "Avoid reality if you have to, but don’t spill the beer."
Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Crusie