The Dog Who Saved Me
By Susan Wilson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Susan Wilson
All rights reserved.
My quarry is intelligent, experienced, elusive. I make a slow turn off the main road and head into a development, easing my government-issue vehicle over the numerous speed bumps designed to keep the rate of speed through the neighborhood down to fifteen miles per hour. I'm craning to see if my fugitive is skulking somewhere behind the cultivated shrubbery or hidden deep in the landscape architect–designed three-acre parcels of this, the most exclusive of all of Harmony Farms' neighborhoods. This isn't the first time I've had to collect this particular miscreant. He has a taste for the good life, a sense of entitlement that frequently brings him here to this covenant-restricted monument to suburban living.
I throw the vehicle into park, sit for a moment, collecting myself, running a hand over my military-short brush of hair. This is the most likely place. It is also where I need to be on foot. It's time to roll. I settle my cap on my head and gather up my equipment. I shut the driver's door very carefully so as not to alert my fugitive. Unlike me, my quarry has extraordinary hearing. The element of surprise is the only weapon at my disposal and the only one that gives me any advantage. The good news is, it's still early in the day, the better not to have interference in the proceedings. Once the neighborhood residents are up and about, my chances of capturing the escapee are pretty well shot. Nothing worse than a posse of vigilante home owners in pursuit of a trespasser.
Despite the similarities of tracking down an enemy or a felon or a missing person and tracking down this miserable runaway, there is no sense of danger, of imperative in this situation. Which, given my nightmares and panic attacks at the thought of returning to my former profession, is a good thing.
I shoulder the coil of rope and squat to examine a print in the dust, depending only on my eyes to tell me the whereabouts of my target. Back in the day, I would have depended less on my vision than upon my canine partner's acute sense of smell to determine the direction of our quarry, his acute hearing to detect the slightest sound. This entire hunt would have been a snap with Argos by my side. I could have been blind and deaf and it wouldn't have mattered. Now I'm just deaf.
It's a pretty morning. The rising sun breaks rosy above the lake that is this town's chief attraction—the view of which is the Upper Lake Estates at Harmony Farms' chief selling point. The bucolic name of Harmony Farms belies the discordant undertones that have developed in the three decades since urban flight brought an influx of newcomers to the village. It was once simply a farming community, carved out of New England soil, etched into hillsides with drystone walls, its pastures grappled from the stingy fists of old-growth timber, itself then committed to use as fence posts, firewood, and farmhouses. Lake Harmony is still its centerpiece, a ten-acre, pristine jewel in the crown, complemented by the half dozen spring-fed ponds that punctuate the terrain between gentle hills. Much of the shoreline is privately owned now, but the conservation people have carved out a nice public beach on the Lake Shore Drive side, the less pretty side, my side. It's where we swam when I was a kid, and where ice fishermen would slide their ice shacks out to the middle of the lake back in the day when it froze solid.
Old-timers like Deke Wilkins, whose family was one of the five original families given the charter for Harmony Farms back in the 1600s, have been pitted against the "new people," who arrived back in the glory days of the 1980s. People like the first selectman, Cynthia Mann, who leads the charge for quality-of-life improvements to the roads, the school, and the gentrification of Main Street. Or her husband, Donald Boykin, who sits on the land-use committee and likes to write big checks as "lead gifts" for a variety of big-ticket charities here and elsewhere. Theirs are the names you see on the top of donor lists, the ones who know how to throw a party.
But with influence come accommodations. A few of the niceties. In other words, bring all of the things we like best about city life to this hamlet where we fled to avoid the pitfalls of city life. And besides, twenty miles is too far to go to get a decent cup of coffee. Deke Wilkins likes the sludge that Elvin sells at the Country Market. He doesn't need any high-priced beverage too highfalutin to call itself small, medium, or large. Grande. He hoots when he says the word. At Elvin's, he can get a small coffee, and that's just fine with him. "Gimme a petit, will ya?"
I jog along a meticulously groomed driveway, following a scattering of prints pressed into the sprinkler-moist edge until I reach a gap in a determinedly trimmed hedge. On the other side, there's a depression in the grass that might be a print; a little farther into the property, I find another. I spot the best indicator that my quarry has passed this way, a small pile of manure. And there he is, happily grazing upon the expansive flower beds of Harmony Farms' wealthiest resident, Cutie-Pie, the miniature donkey, who has made a career out of escaping from his owners' inadequately fenced-in yard.
I pull a carrot out of my back pocket. Cutie-Pie eyes me with suspicion, gives me a wink, and goes back to eating the no doubt expensive and probably imported late-summer flowers. His little brushy tail twitches in derision. The thing with these miniature equines is that they don't think like real equines. They are independent thinkers. A horse will allow itself to be led. A miniature donkey will plant four feet and become an immovable object. A statue of a donkey. I swear that it's Eddie Murphy's voice coming out of Cutie-Pie. Say what? Yours truly get in that truck? I don't think so. You're jokin', right? Cutie-Pie is only the size of a large dog. Not even as tall as Argos was.
Right now, my goal is to get a lead line attached to this animal. I hold out the carrot. Cutie-Pie, without moving his legs, stretches his neck to its full length, reaching with his prehensile lips for the carrot. I keep it just out of reach, making the donkey choose: Flowers? Carrot? Cutie-Pie finally takes a step, then another. As soon as the donkey is within reach, I snag his halter, snapping the lead line to it. At least I've finally convinced the Bollens to keep the halter on at all times, even if I haven't convinced them to fix the freakin' fence. Nice couple, one tick away from doddery. They treat this out-of-control equine like a baby. Mrs. Bollen was my third-grade teacher, so it's pretty much impossible for me to threaten them with fines or confiscation. Besides, I really don't want a donkey at the limited facility my part-time assistant, Jenny Bright, refers to as the "Bowwow Inn." It's barely adequate for the canine inmates. I mean, it's better than it was when I arrived on the scene, but still pretty primitive.
Before I got here, there was no shelter, just the pound, which was nothing more than a wire run attached to the outside of the town barn. At least now the impounds have a proper kennel, proper care. Even if this isn't a job I want, I still have the integrity of purpose to make sure my animals are safe and rehomed. No animal on my watch will be put down unless critically injured or unequivocally dangerous, and I haven't encountered either of those circumstances to date, a third of the way into my twelve-month contract. I do that in memory of Argos. Argos, who could interpret what I was thinking even before I thought it. A pure white shepherd, his eyes deep brown, he was big for his breed, and maybe too pretty, but his magnificent nose was what made him the best of the best. Acute and never wrong. Not once. I shake off the thought. My shrink wants me to develop a mechanism to switch off those thoughts, develop what he calls "coping" mechanisms; adopt something that will bring me out of the past and back into the moment.
Half a bag of carrots later, I have the donkey crammed into the backseat of the town's white Suburban, a cast-off vehicle from the building inspector's department. Although I hope that Cutie-Pie doesn't let loose in the ten minutes it'll take to drive him home, I've set yesterday's Boston Globe under his back end. I've really got to lay the law down with the Bollens. Armand Percy isn't going to be too pleased to see his million-dollar gardens destroyed by a miniature donkey. Armand Percy isn't exactly a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. We assume he's some sort of venture capitalist who managed to survive the downturn. No one really knows what he does, just that he was one of the very first of the very wealthy to arrive in Harmony Farms thirty years ago.
What's certain is, Percy isn't likely to be the sort of fellow to overlook the destruction of his gardens. He's more likely to be the sort of fellow who will demand restitution. In all the years that Percy has lived in Harmony Farms, there isn't anyone who can claim to have seen him. Still, he keeps a cadre of housecleaners, yardmen, gardeners, and window washers employed year-round, most of whom come from the same side of the tracks as I did. Not the fancy side with the homes with a view of Lake Harmony and two bathrooms, but the rough side, where getting through high school was an accomplishment and home was often subsidized housing or one cheap rental after another, like the places we'd end up each time my mother left my father, dragging us boys with her.
Tina Bollen rushes up to meet me as I pull into the driveway. "I knew you'd find him!"
"Mrs. Bollen, this can't keep happening."
"I know." She says she knows, but I don't think she really gets it. To her, and to her husband, Cutie-Pie is just a mischievous child. A bad little boy, which is exactly what she says as I extricate the donkey from the backseat.
"Oh, Cutie-Pie, what a bad little boy you are." She makes kissy noises and scratches his forehead, as if he's done something cute. This attitude puzzles me, given Mrs. Bollen's strict authority in the third-grade classroom. Oh, how times have changed.
"Some one of these days, a home owner is going to sue you if he finds Cutie-Pie munching on his flowers." I throw that out in the hope that the threat of litigation will bring her into reality. "That's if he doesn't keep a rifle." If litigation doesn't work, how about the threat of plain old violence?
But Mrs. Bollen just smiles. "I don't think so." There's a little of the old Mrs. Bollen in that remark, and something in her tone reminds me of the time she had me facing the blackboard, hands behind my back, all my pals outside at recess. Mrs. Bollen was sitting there at her desk, humming softly, as I anguished over being kept in, the sounds of school yard play in my ears. My friends were playing dodgeball, and every hollow bounce of the flaccid ball felt like a slap. I don't remember what it was I did wrong to merit so unfair a punishment. Unlike my older brother, Jimmy, I wasn't a bad kid, never intentionally fresh or into destructive mischief. I was probably caught chewing gum. Mrs. Bollen was a bug on gum chewing. To this day, I never put a stick of Doublemint in my mouth without feeling like I'm committing a misdemeanor. "Will you call someone to come build you a proper fence?"
Mrs. Bollen takes the donkey's lead line out of my hand. She doesn't look at me, just makes kissy sounds at Cutie-Pie. I look around, noting the flaking paint on the house and the poor condition of the roof.
"Look, if you can manage materials, I'll do it for you. I just can't keep chasing him down."
The Mrs. Bollen of my childhood was tall and imperious, her steel gray hair disciplined into a crown of curls. This woman barely comes up to my shoulder, and her white hair is loosely gathered into a relaxed bun. She reaches up and pats my cheek, as if I'm still eight, not thirty-eight. I see a glint of that pity she once showed me, as if I haven't outgrown the need for it.
Mrs. Bollen was my teacher when my father was thrown in jail for drunk driving. Maybe she punished me that day because she wanted to keep me away from the other kids, the ones who knew what was going on. The ones who had heard from their parents that Bull Harrison had driven up Main Street in broad daylight, knocking down parking meters like toothpicks with his '68 Nova, until finally plowing through the plate-glass window of the Cumberland Farms. He climbed out of the truck, shook his head, bits of glass falling out of his beard, grabbed a half gallon of milk, and dug out his wallet. He looked at the shaken clerk. "Sorry about that." Three little words that became the town joke. No one was killed, thank God, and miraculously no one hurt, but Bull was—once again—the laughingstock of the village of Harmony Farms. Town drunk. Town joke. My father. Sorry about that.
Mr. Bollen has arrived on the scene, as bent over and plump as his wife is straight and thin. He gives Cutie-Pie a fond scratch on the neck. "That would be great, Cooper. If you'll buy the materials, we'll reimburse you. And for your time."
"No, no need for that. Maybe a plate of that lasagna Mrs. Bollen is so famous for." Somehow, I know that I'll be using my own account at the lumberyard for the fencing and that I may never have the chutzpah to hand Mr. Bollen the bill. But it'll be worth it to have that miserable little faux equine corralled permanently.
This is my life.
* * *
The dog waits patiently as the man who has kept him locked in the crate stands with two other men, a third man standing at a distance. The dog can smell the sweet scent of fresh air all around him. The birds at this early hour have begun their chittering, and a new sun tinges the pond water pink.
The men are leaning against the big car, smoking cigars and passing a bottle from one to the next, pouring something into paper cups that smells sharp to the Labrador's clever nose. Unpleasant, as is the smoke drifting out of their mouths. The fourth man says something to the trio, and the man who seems to be in possession of the dog finally drops his cigar, stamps his foot on it, and snatches up the dog's leash. "Come on, dog." The dog tags along happily enough. The others follow. Like the man who holds his leash, they all cradle shotguns in their arms.
The walk is a pleasant one as they follow the fourth man, who moves quickly and quietly in the lead. They come to the pond, and a roofless structure, into which they go. Sunlight dapples the stamped-down riparian grasses under their feet. There's some talk, and then the three men all face the water. The fourth man walks away. The dog is uninterested in the absent man; it's enough to try to befriend the one in charge of him.
The dog doesn't know what they're waiting for, if indeed that's what's happening. He senses a general restlessness as the men, leaning through the open space above the low wall, shift on their booted feet and begin to mutter. Finally, a duck quacks, twice. The dog's ears perk up at the sound.
The explosion over his head launches the dog into a frenzy of panicked barking. Once, twice, three times the guns blast two feet over his head. It's only the grip the man has on the dog's leash that prevents him from running away. He's hauled back close to the man's legs, close to the discharged and stinking weapons, their heat and odor burning fear into the dog's mind.
He's given an order, but not with words he's ever heard before. It's a human-language mystery, what this man wants of him. He's pushed toward the water. "Go, go, go. Get the goddamn, duck, you expensive goddamn piece of ..." The dog is shaking, trembling, and the rage and frustration in the man brings the dog down to his belly; he rolls over, utterly submissive, quaking. The two other men stalk away, guns broken open, leaving the man and the dog alone on the edge of the pond.
The first kick hurts. The second kick breaks a rib. The blow with the stock of the shotgun cracks but does not shatter his skull. The dog scrambles to his feet, pulls against the leash, sets his feet against the constriction of the web collar, struggles, and finally slips free to bolt.
"Get back here, you mutt."
The man raises his shotgun, one barrel still loaded. Fires. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dog Who Saved Me by Susan Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Susan Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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