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The Last Dogs: The Vanishing
By Christopher Holt, Greg Call
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Christopher Holt Greg Call
All rights reserved.
BRIGHT AND EMPTY
Max's head jerked up from the chilly concrete floor. He blinked his eyes, clearing them of the fog of sleep.
Max was alone.
He was snuggled against a ratty old blanket in the back of his cage—a kennel, the humans called it. It was quiet and cold, and Max's stomach growled endlessly, nipping at his insides until he ached.
It had been so long since he'd seen anyone. So long since he'd eaten the last of his kibble, two days since he lapped up the last of his water. Day by day he awoke to the click of a timer and the fluorescent lights on the ceiling flicking on, the buzz of them hitting his ears before the light shone into his tired eyes.
And day by day Max expected Vet, the man who was supposed to watch after him, to come and refill his food bowl, to take his water dish to the big stainless-steel basin across the room and fill it with water.
But Vet never came.
It had been two weeks. At least, Max thought it was two weeks.
The first week had been normal, with Vet coming into the back room to feed and water Max as he did every morning, and to take him out to the field behind the farmhouse-turned-Vet's-office so that Max could run and stretch his legs.
The kennel was hardly Max's favorite place, but he'd grown used to it. Once every year, Charlie and Emma and their parents put him here while they went away. Why they didn't let him stay on the farm, he didn't know. But every visit, he was poked and prodded by Vet, who would lift Max's floppy ears and look inside and clean his teeth with a strange-looking brush. Vet's helpers would come brush his golden fur, combing out the burrs and matted hair. Eventually, after many days, Charlie and Emma always returned and everything went back to normal—that's what made the time with Vet bearable.
But this time was different.
By Max's count, the fluorescents had turned out six times and had turned on seven times since he'd last seen Vet—seven days. Seven days since Max had been out of his cage. Seven days since he'd had anything to eat.
His tongue and nose were dry. His stomach twisted with hunger pains. He was so tired.
Vet's back room wasn't large, but it had enough room for four cages just like the one that boxed Max in. Each kennel was about the size of one of the closets in his family's home. Metal pipes made up the four corners, with chain-link fencing stretched between each pipe so that Max couldn't get out.
In Max's past visits, other dogs had been in the kennels: Cupcake, a fluffy Lhasa Apso who yapped complaints day and night about how her space simply wasn't posh enough; Shadow, a stocky black Chow who was mostly quiet and shy and kept to himself; Ariel, a wiry mutt who liked to gnaw and dig at the bottom of the kennel when she wasn't barking challenges at Shadow.
And Max's favorite kennel companion out of all his visits was an older female dog named Madame Curie, though Max just called her Madame. She was the same size as Max and the same breed—Labrador—only her fur was like the night sky, black and flecked with strands of white. She was all wise words and good humor, and talking with her always helped the days pass by faster.
Max especially liked looking at the sparkly golden symbol on her collar—three connected rings in a straight row. He'd never seen anything so fancy on another dog, and it glittered spectacularly even under the fluorescent lights.
Madame had been with Max right up until the day Vet had stopped coming. Max awoke one morning to find her kennel empty, its door squeaking on its hinges. She hadn't even said good-bye.
Since then, the other kennels remained empty.
Max barely had enough room to pace back and forth. His area was bare except for the torn blanket that he slept on to avoid the cold concrete floor, the empty food dish, the plastic water dispenser that used to fill his now-dried-up bowl, and the shed fur that formed little messy piles. Once he'd also had a rubber ball, but in a fit of hunger, he'd torn it into tiny pieces, which were now part of the mess on the floor.
And in the back corner was the place Max made his bathroom. He had been so ashamed the first time he'd been forced to go inside his cage. Ever since he was a pup, he'd been taught that his business was only to be done outdoors.
Beyond the kennels, Max could see Vet's examination room. The walls were lined with counters and cabinets, with sterile medical equipment hanging from pegs and lying in blue liquid. In the center of the room was a long table, its top shiny steel. On the other side of the room from Max's cage was the large metal basin with the faucet.
The faucet dripped.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Each water drop pinged against the bottom of the sink, and Max's ears twitched with each ping. His throat burned for water.
Max hadn't thought of it much at the time, but in the days before Madame disappeared, she'd started to act strangely. Muttering of something coming. Something dangerous.
"Be prepared, Maxie," she'd told Max in that serious, grave tone of hers the night before she was gone. "There is a darkness on the horizon. I can feel it."
Max had been chewing on his red ball covered with nubs. "I don't feel anything," he'd said with the ball between his teeth. "Are you sure it's not just an old dog ache?"
Madame had barked a friendly laugh. "Of course I feel it 'cause I'm old, Maxie. Old dogs have smarter bones that creak and rattle when bad things are going to happen." Laughter leaving her voice, she added, "I don't know what it is yet. But when I find out, I'll tell you. Be safe, little Maxie."
And now Madame was gone.
Everyone was gone.
His dreams showed the darkness she spoke about, or at least how Max imagined it looked. And even though his body ached, he couldn't stop worrying about where she'd gone, or what her cryptic words meant for his family.
Because if Max knew one thing above all else, it was that his family would never abandon him for two weeks unless something or someone was keeping them from him.
If only he had a way out, then he could find his family himself. A wave of exhaustion rolled over Max, and he padded back to his blanket. He turned in a circle and began to lie down, his eyes already halfway closed.
And then he heard something: a rustling of plastic and a creak of hinges.
Max's eyes snapped wide open. He darted to the side of the kennel, stuck his snout through the chain-link fence, and sniffed deeply.
A stench of fur and musk met his nose. He saw the small cat door that led from Vet's examination room into the main house. It was swinging back and forth, as though something had just darted through it.
And Max could hear a clattering of claws atop the concrete floor.
"Hey!" Max barked. "Who's there?"
From across the room, a muffled voice barked, "Whoa!"
There was a great noise—a clanging and crashing as things fell and hit the floor somewhere out of sight.
A creature darted from behind the table and raced across the room, back toward the door, a latex glove covering its head.
"Stop!" Max yelped. "Please, I need help!"
The little creature skidded to a stop mere inches from the cat door. It shook its head until the latex glove flew off, letting Max get a good look at the animal.
It was a dog.
A very small dog—no bigger than Max had been as a puppy. For a moment he wondered if this was another Labrador puppy, but no, Max's limbs had been long when he was young, not like this little dog's short, stubby legs. The little dog's fur was also mostly a sleek black instead of the faded gold of Max's shaggier fur, and though both dogs had floppy ears, the ears on the smaller dog seemed much too big for his pointy little head.
Max lifted a paw and clung to the cage. "Please, can you help me?" he asked. "It's been days since Vet has been here. What happened?"
The other dog looked Max up and down with big, watery brown eyes that were surrounded by a pattern of brown fur. He tilted his head.
"Hey, you know if there's any kibble in here?"
Max's paw fell limp. That was the last thing he expected the dog to say.
"I don't know," Max said, unable to keep a pitiful whine out of his voice. "I'm hungry, too. And I need to find my people."
The little dog studied Max with one brow raised and his tail wagging slowly, seeming to take in Max's size. "You want food?" Looking away, the dog began to mutter to himself. "Of course he does. All anyone keeps asking about is food, food, food!" To Max, he said, "Well, tell you what—"
The dog stopped talking, and his ears flicked, hearing something that Max could not.
"Sorry, buddy!" the dog said as he began to back through the door. "Gotta run! Try to pinch the latch on the door. I've seen other dogs do it." And then the dog disappeared, the small cat door flapping behind him.
Max looked up at where the cage door met the pole that supported the fence. There was a gap there, enough space for Max to maybe stick his snout through.
Across the room, the faucet drip-drip-dripped. The water was so close, yet so horribly out of reach.
Max's chest swelled with determination. If the little dog wasn't going to help him, then he was going to have to help himself. He was going to get out of this smelly, horrible cage.
And he was going to find his family.
Opening the cage door was not as easy as Max had hoped.
Max leaped against the kennel's gate, his body hitting the chain link with a loud clang. He twisted his snout sideways and tried to force it up between the pole and the door, but the latch was too high and out of reach.
He dropped down onto the concrete, his eyes watering.
The little sausage-looking dog had made it sound so easy. And the latch itself did look simple enough. It reminded Max of chew toys he'd been given to gnaw on, just two little levers that he could bite and twist.
He could do it. He had to.
Max snorted in and out through his nostrils. The next effort was going to have to count. Tensing his hind legs, Max leaped.
His paws slammed against the chain link. The gate rattled. He bent his front paws, straining to hold himself up while his hind feet scrabbled against the concrete.
Eyes wide, he forced his snout between the door and the pole. It was a tight fit, the cool metal pressing against his gums as he opened his mouth wide. The taste of acrid metal met his tongue as his mouth wrapped around the latch.
He bit down.
Resistance. There was something in the latch, some sort of spring. Of course. Human hands would need to press down hard to open the door.
Max's whole body trembled. His paws started to slip. The pain as the chain link cut into his feet was intense. His instincts yelped at him, telling him to let go, to give up.
In Max's mind, he saw the laughing faces of Charlie and Emma, saw the pulsating darkness muddy and erase their features. The faucet dripped, the sound plinking cruelly.
Growling deep in his chest, Max clamped his jaws down on the latch as hard as he could.
And the kennel door swung open.
Max tumbled forward, his paws pulling free from the chain link. He plopped heavily against the concrete floor, and, for a moment, the wind was knocked out of him. Max lay there, his chest heaving up and down, his eyes unfocused. Above, the bright light of the fluorescents flared.
And then Max realized it: He was free.
"I'm out," he barked. "I'm out!" A surge of energy flooded his limbs, and Max rolled over onto his feet, his tail wagging, a blur of golden fur.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Water. Delicious, cool water. He could finally drink.
Max's head darted from side to side, catching his bearings. There, across the room. The giant basin where Vet filled the water dispensers and washed the smaller pets.
Max raced across the room and leaped up against the basin. He'd seen how Vet turned on the faucet. He pressed the lever down with his snout. So much easier than the latch on the cage.
Pipes groaned in the walls, and the end of the curved faucet let out a little gurgle. Then water. It gushed from the faucet, a strong, steady stream. It glittered in the light.
Max plunged his entire head under the faucet, letting the water slide off his pale fur and down his back. He pulled away, shook his head, and barked a laugh. Then he lapped out with his tongue, pulling the water down his throat, filling his stomach.
Soon he felt energy come back to him. His muscles surged with strength. His middle grew fat, bloated with water, but he didn't care.
Finally, when he knew he'd had his fill, Max dropped down and sat on the floor. His tongue lolled from his mouth as he panted a smile. His nose was wet, for the first time in days, and the sensation made him want to roll around on the ground and get his belly rubbed.
Only that couldn't happen. Because there were no people here.
The strange situation he was in came back to Max in a rush. He was alone. Abandoned. And he needed to find out why.
There was that other dog. The little, funny-looking one with the short legs and the long body. Maybe he could tell Max what was going on.
Max stood on all fours and turned from the basin. The water still gushed from the faucet, but he left it on. He never wanted that faucet to be turned off again.
"Hello?" Max barked. "Little dog, are you there?"
His barks echoed through the sterile, concrete room. No response.
Across the room, past the large examination table, was the door with the little cat flap at the bottom. Sounds drifted from beyond the flap, thumps and maybe the yelps of another animal. Max padded across the room. His brows lowered as he examined the little cat door. Clearly, he would never fit through it. He wasn't the biggest dog ever, but he was big, after all.
But his head was certainly cat-sized.
Max shoved his snout through the cat door and twisted his head to force it out. He got through as far as his shoulders but couldn't really turn to look to his left or right. All he could see was the wooden floor and plain wall of the hallway.
Sniffing, Max's nostrils picked up the scent of the little dog. The smell was excitable, urgent, and tinged with the meaty scent of kibble. Max could hear clearly now—there was a commotion going on down the hallway to his right. A scrabbling of claws against wood, thumps, and little yelps.
"Little dog?" Max barked. "Is that you? I got out of the kennel. I opened the latch like you said!"
No response. The sounds of struggle continued. Unable to turn his head, Max snorted in frustration and pulled his head back through the cat door.
Sitting on his haunches, Max craned back his head to study the door. Its handle was a flat lever, like the one in the sink, only this one was sideways.
Max jumped up and pressed his paws down on the door handle. There was a click, and the door creaked open. Easy! Sticking his snout between the door and the jamb, Max shoved with his head, and the door opened wide.
He padded out into the hallway, the floor changing from cold concrete to smooth wood. To the left, a bunch of doors like the one he'd just come through. To the right, a pale turquoise door that swung on hinges. Max recalled coming through it. On the other side was the waiting room where his people sat on chairs until a woman behind a desk told them it was their turn to see Vet.
The noises came from beyond the swinging door.
Head hung low, Max slunk down the hallway. The closer he got to the waiting room, the louder the sounds became.
Max pushed past the swinging door slowly. For a moment, he dared to hope that there would be people in the room beyond, loud people with cages holding cats and ferrets and birds, like there always were when his people brought him here.
But the waiting room was empty and dark.
Dingy daylight streamed through the narrow slats of closed blinds. The room smelled strange, like nervousness and sadness and—was that what he thought it was?
Yes. He smelled fear.
It felt strange to be in the room all by himself. Aside from the lack of people, everything looked normal. The chairs were all lined up neatly against the walls. The magazines on the end tables were fanned out, waiting to be read. The desk where the lady usually sat was neat and organized. Next to the doorway was a small red machine on a stand with a glass globe on top. Charlie and Emma often begged their parents for change to put inside to release brightly colored gum balls.
Excerpted from The Last Dogs: The Vanishing by Christopher Holt, Greg Call. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Holt Greg Call. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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