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The dog, fur soaked, matted and muddy, sat forlornly on the rain-slicked pavement, next to Echo Wells's custom-painted hot-pink Volkswagen bug. Echo, rushing from the truck-stop restaurant with the remains of her supper in a take-out box, in hopes of not getting too wet before she reached her car, stopped cold.
"I do not need a dog," she told the universe, tilting back her head and letting the drizzle wash away the last tired traces of her makeup.
The dog whimpered. It was a large creature, of indeterminate color and breed. A slight indentation around its neck revealed that it had once worn a collar, and its ribs showed. One forepaw bore the brownish stain of old blood.
"Oh, hell," Echo said. She glanced around the parking lot, empty except for a few semitrucks and an ancient RV, but there was no one in sight, no one conveniently searching for a missing pet.
The dog had obviously been on its own for days, if not weeksor even months.
Just imagining the loneliness, fear and deprivation the poor thing must have experienced made Echo shudder and opened a gaping chasm of sympathy within her.
The canine wayfarer had either been dropped offthere was a special place in hell, in Echo's opinion, for people who abandoned helpless animalsor it had gotten away somehow, while its owners were gassing up at the pumps or inside the restaurant having a meal.
"I just had this car detailed," Echo told the dog. The bug was her only vanity, a reckless indulgence with psychological implications she didn't care to examine too closely.
The animal whimpered again, and looked up at her with such sad hope in its soulful brown eyes that Echo's heart melted all over again.
Resigned, she rounded the car and opened the passenger door with one hand, balancing the take-out box in the other. The dog slunk along with her, half crouched, limping a little.
"Go ahead," she said gently. "Get in."
The dog hesitated, then made the leap into the seatmud, rainwater and all.
Echo sighed, opened the take-out box and stood in the rain, hand-feeding the animal the last of her meat loaf special. So much for staying within her travel budget by stretching every meal into at least two more.
Ravenous, the poor critter gulped down its supper and looked up at Echo with such pathetic gratitude that tears came into her eyes.
"Don't worry," she said, to herself as much as the dog. "Everything's going to be okay."
She closed the car door, let the rain wash her hands clean, holding them out palms up as if in supplication, and rubbed them semidry on her ancient tan Burberry coat before settling behind the wheel once more.
The dog, dripping onto Echo's formerly clean leather seat, eyed her with weary adoration.
Echo started the car, and the combination of wet dog and her own soggy raincoat instantly fogged up the windows.
"This is Arizona," she complained to her new traveling companion. "It's supposed to be dry."
The dog sighed, as if to concur that nothing was as it should be.
"You really are wet," Echo remarked matter-of-factly. She switched on the defroster, pulled the lever to open the trunk and braved the elements again to get out the quilt she'd carried around with her since childhood. After bundling the dog, she peeled off her raincoat and tossed it over the seat before getting back in the car and buckling up.
Cocooned in faded colors, the dog sighed again, lay down as best it could given the disparity between its size and that of the seat, and was snoring by the time Echo pulled out onto Highway 10.
Two and a half hours later, on the outskirts of Phoenix, she turned into the lot of a medium-priced chain hotel. The rain had stopped, and there was a muggy warmth in the night air.
The dog sat up, yawning, the quilt falling away in damp folds.
Echo assessed the creature again. "I was hoping to make it to Indian Rock tonight," she told her bedraggled passenger, "but I'm tired and, frankly, you stink. So I'm going to spring for a room, and we'll hit the road again in the morning. Wait here."
The dog looked alarmed at the prospect of her departure, and made a low, whining sound in its throat.
Echo patted its filthy head. "Not to worry, Muttzo," she said. "It's you and me until we find your people."
Grabbing her hobo bag, she got out of the car slowly, leaving a window cracked, and headed for the main entrance, hoping she didn't smell like the dog.
"Good news," she said when she returned after fifteen minutes, clutching a key card in hand. "We're in." The dog was so glad to see her that it leaned across and laved her face with its rough, meatloaf-scented tongue. "Of course, I did tell them you were a toy poodle."
Echo drove around to the back and parked under a light. The dog politely paused to do its business in the shrubbery while Echo wrestled one of her suitcases out of the Volks. Inside, they slogged along a carpeted hallway to room 117 and entered.
"You get the first bath," Echo told her canine friend, leading the way to the bathroom. As soon as she turned on the faucet in the tub, the dog leaped over the side and lapped thirstily at the flow.
The showerhead was on a long metal tube, one of those detachable jobs, so Echo took it down from its hook and knelt beside the tub. Finished slurping, the dog sat down, watching her, its eyes luminous with trust.
"What do you know?" Echo asked, after considerable spraying. Ten pounds of dirt rolled down to the bottom of the tub and swirled around the drain. "You're a white Lab. And female, too."
The dog gazed at her soulfully, enduring. One more trial in a long sequence of them.
Echo opened a tiny packet of soap and lathered the dog's coat. Rinsed. Lathered again. The soap bar wore away to a nubbin, so she fetched a bottle of shampoo from her cosmetic bag. More lathering. More rinsing.
"You need a name," Echo said as she towel-dried the dog. "Since there's something faintly mystical and Lady-of-the-Lakeish about youit's the eyes, I think" She paused, pondered and decided. "I hereby dub you Avalon."
Avalon, apparently understanding that the bath was over, leaped out of the tub and stood uncertainly on the mat for a few moments, as though awaiting a cue. When Echo didn't issue any orders, the animal shook herself gloriously, dousing her human companion, and padded out into the main part of the hotel room.
Echo laughed, found the blow-dryer and plugged it into a wall socket. Avalon's snow-white fur curled endearingly under the onslaught of heat. Once the dog was thoroughly dry, Echo filled the ice bucket with water, set it on the floor and dodged into the bathroom for a badly needed shower of her own.
When she came out, bundled in a robe, with her curly, shoulder-length blond hair standing out around her head like an aureole, Avalon had curled up on the floor, at the foot of the bed. The dog opened one brown eye and lifted her head slightly, and there was a certain stalwart wariness in her manner now, as if she expected to be chased away.
Echo's throat tightened. She knew what it was like to feel that way, to hover on the fringes of things, hoping not to be noticed and, at the same time, yearning desperately to belong.
Her old life, in Chicago, had been all about waiting on the sidelines.
"Hey," she said, crouching to stroke Avalon's soft, gleaming coat. "I'm a woman of my word. We'll stick together, as long as necessary. Share and share alike." She put out her hand and, to her surprise, Avalon placed a paw in her palm. They shook on the deal.
After blow-drying her hair and winding it into a French braid to keep it from frizzing out, Echo pulled on a cotton nightshirt, brushed her teeth and climbed into bed, leaning to switch off the bedside lamp.
Avalon gave a soft, pitiful whine, as though she were crying.
Echo's eyes burned again. "Come on, then," she said. "There's room enough up here for both of us."
Avalon jumped onto the bed, nested at Echo's feet and fell asleep.
Echo, exhausted after days on the road, wasn't far behind.