Lucas Ray is shocked when an adorable puppy jumps out of an abandoned building and into his arms. Though the apartment he shares with his mother, a disabled veteran, doesn’t allow dogs, Lucas can’t resist taking Bella home.
Bella is inexplicably drawn to Lucas, even if she doesn’t understand the necessity of games like No Barks. As it becomes more difficult to hide her from the neighbors, Lucas begins to sneak Bella into the VA where he works. There, Bella brings joy and comfort where it is needed most.
After Bella is picked up by Animal Control because pit bulls are banned in Denver, Lucas has no choice but to send her to a foster home until he can figure out what to do. But Bella, distraught at the separation, doesn’t plan to wait. With four hundred miles of dangerous Colorado wilderness between her and her person, Bella sets off on a seemingly impossible and completely unforgettable adventure home.
The trade paperback edition of A Dog’s Way Home will be available on May 1st. Please enjoy this extended excerpt of the first three chapters.
From the beginning, I was aware of cats.
I couldn’t really see them—my eyes were open, but when the cats were nearby I registered nothing except shifting forms in the darkness. I could smell them though, as clearly as I could smell my mother as I took nourishment, or my siblings stirring next to me as I worked my way to find life-giving milk.
I didn’t know they were cats, of course—I just knew they were creatures not like me, present in our den but not attempting to nurse alongside me. Later, when I came to see that they were small and fast and lithe, I realized they were not only “not dogs,” but were their own distinct kind of animal.
We lived together in a cool, dark home. Dry dirt underneath my nose gave up exotic, old smells. I delighted in inhaling them, filling my nose with rich, flavorful aromas. Above, a ceiling of parched wood dropped dust into the air, the roof pressing down so low that whenever my mother stood up from the packed depression in the earth that served as our bed to leave my siblings and me—squeaking in protest and huddling against each other for reassurance—her upright tail was halfway to the beams. I did not know where my mother went when she departed, I only knew how anxious we were until she returned.
The sole source of light in the den came from a single square hole at the far end. Through this window to the world poured astounding scents of cold and alive and wet, of places and things even more intoxicating than what I could smell in the den. But even though I saw an occasional cat flicker through the hole out into the world or returning from some unknown place, my mother pushed me back whenever I tried to crawl toward the outdoors.
As my legs strengthened and my eyesight sharpened I played with the kittens as I would with my siblings. Often I singled out the same family of cats toward the back recesses of our communal home, where a pair of young kitties were particularly friendly and their mother occasionally licked me. I thought of her as Mother Cat.
After some time spent romping joyfully with the little felines, my own mother would come over and retrieve me, pulling me out of the pile of kittens by the back of my neck. My siblings all sniffed me suspiciously when my mother dropped me next to them. Their responses suggested they did not care for the residual whiff of cat.
This was my fun, wonderful life, and I had no reason to suspect it would ever change.
I was nursing drowsily, hearing the peeping sounds of my brothers and sisters as they did the same, when suddenly my mother lunged to her feet, her movements so unexpected that my legs were lifted off the ground before I dropped from the teat.
I knew instantly something bad was happening.
A panic spread through the den, rippling from cat to cat like a breeze. They stampeded toward the back of the den, the mothers carrying their mewing offspring by the backs of their necks. My siblings and I surged toward our mother, crying for her, frightened because she was frightened.
Strong beams of light swept over us, stinging my eyes. They came from the hole, as did the sounds: “Jesus! There’s a million cats in the crawl space!”
I had no sense of what was making these noises, nor why the den was filled with flashing lights. The scent of an entirely new sort of creature wafted toward me from the hole. We were in danger and it was these unseen creatures that were the threat. My mother panted, ducking her head, backing away, and we all did our best to stumble after her, beseeching her with our tiny voices not to leave us.
“Let me see. Oh Christ, look at all of them!”
“Is this going to be a problem?”
“Hell yes it’s a problem.”
“What do you want to do?”
“We’ll have to call the exterminator.”
I was able to distinguish a difference between the first set of sounds and the second, a variation of pitch and tone, though I wasn’t sure what it meant.
“Can’t we just poison them ourselves?”
“You got something on the truck?”
“No, but I can get some.”
My mother continued to deny us the comfort of her teats. Her muscles were tense, her ears back, her attention focused on the source of the sounds. I wanted to nurse, to know we were safe.
“Well, but if we do that, we’re going to have all these dead cats all over the neighborhood. There’s too many. If we were just talking one or two, fine, but this is a whole cat colony.”
“You wanted to finish the demo by the end of June. That don’t give us a lot of time to get rid of them.”
“Look, see the bowls? Somebody’s actually been feeding the damn things.”
The lights dipped, joining together in a burning spot of brightness on the floor just inside the hole.
“Well that’s just great. What the hell is wrong with people?”
“You want me to try to find out who it is?”
“Nah. The problem goes away when the cats do. I’ll call somebody.”
The probing lights flickered around one last time, and then winked out. I heard dirt moving and distinct, heavy footfalls, so much louder than the quiet steps of the cats. Slowly, the presence of the new creatures faded from the hole, and gradually the kittens resumed their play, happy again. I nursed alongside my siblings, then went to see Mother Cat’s kitties. As usual, when the daylight coming through the square hole dimmed, the adult cats streamed out, and during the night I would hear them return and sometimes smell the blood of the small kill they were bringing back to their respective broods.
When Mother hunted, she went no farther than the big bowls of dry food that were set just inside the square hole. I could smell the meal on her breath and it was fish and plants and meats, and I began to wonder what it would taste like.
Whatever had happened to cause the panic was over.
I was playing with Mother Cat’s relentless kittens when our world shattered. This time the light wasn’t a single shaft, it was a blazing explosion, turning everything bright.
The cats scattered in terror. I froze, unsure what I should do.
“Get the nets ready; when they run they’re going to do it all at once!”
A sound from outside of the hole. “We’re ready!”
Three large beings wriggled in behind the light. They were the first humans I had ever seen, but I had smelled others, I now realized—I just had not been able to visualize what they looked like. Something deep inside of me sparked a recognition—I felt strangely drawn to them, wanting to run to them as they crawled forward into the den. Yet the alarm crackling in the frenzied cats froze me in place.
A male cat hissed and screamed.
“Watch it, a couple just escaped!”
“Well, hell!” came the response from outside.
I was separated from my mother and tried to sort out her scent from among the cats, and then went limp when I felt the sharp teeth on the nape of my neck. Mother Cat dragged me back, deep into the shadows, to a place where a large crack split the stone wall. She squeezed me through the crack into a small, tight space and set me down with her kittens, curling up with us. The cats were utterly silent, following Mother Cat’s lead. I lay with them in the darkness and listened to the humans call to each other.
“There’s also a litter of puppies here!”
“Are you kidding me? Hey, get that one!”
“Jesus, they’re fast.”
“Come on, kitty-kitty, we won’t hurt you.”
“There’s the mother dog.”
“Thing is terrified. Watch it don’t bite you.”
“It’s okay. You’ll be okay, girl. Come on.”
“Gunter didn’t say anything about dogs.”
“He didn’t say there would be so many frigging cats, either.”
“Hey, you guys catching them in the nets out there?”
“This is hard as hell to do!” someone shouted from outside.
“Come on, doggie. Damn! Watch it! Here comes the mother dog!”
“Jesus! Okay, we got the dog!” called the outside voice.
“Here puppy, here puppy. They’re so little!”
“And easier than the damn cats, that’s for sure.”
We heard these noises without comprehension as to what they might mean. Some light made its way into our space behind the wall, leaking in through the crack, but the human smells did not come any closer to our hiding place. The mingle of fear and feline on the air gradually faded, as did the sounds.
Eventually, I slept.
When I awoke, my mother was gone. My brothers and sisters were gone. The depression in the earth where we had been born and had laid nursing still smelled of our family, but the empty, vacant sense that overcame me when I sniffed for Mother brought a whimper from me, a sob in my throat I couldn’t quiet.
I did not understand what had happened, but the only cats left in the space were Mother Cat and her kittens. Frantic, seeking answers and assurance, I went back to her, crying out my fear. She had brought her kittens out from behind the wall and they were gathered back on the small square of cloth I thought of as their home. Mother Cat examined me carefully with her black nose. Then she curled around me, lying down, and I followed the scent and began to nurse. The sensation on my tongue was new and strange, but the warmth and nurture were what I craved, and I fed gratefully. After a few moments, her kittens joined me.
The next morning, a few of the male cats returned. They approached Mother Cat, who hissed out a warning, and then went to their own area to sleep.
Later, when the light from the hole had been its brightest and had started to dim, I picked up a whiff of another human, a different one. Now that I understood the difference, I realized I had had this scent in my nose before.
Mother Cat unexpectedly left us on our square of cloth. The odd flash of cold that came with her departure shocked all of us, and we turned to each other for comfort, squirming ourselves into a pile of kittens and dog. I could see her as she approached the hole, but she did not advance all the way out—just stood, faintly illuminated. The male cats were on alert, but they did not follow her to the human.
“Are you the only one left? I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t around to see, but there are tracks in the dirt, so I know there were trucks. Did they take all the other cats?” The human crawled in through the hole, momentarily blotting out the light. He was male—I could smell this, though I would not learn until later the distinction between man and woman. He seemed slightly larger than the first humans I’d seen.
Again, I was drawn to this special creature, an inexplicable yearning rising up inside me. But the memory of the terror of the day before kept me with my kitten siblings.
“Okay, I see you guys. Hi, how did you get away? And they took your bowls. Nice.”
There was a rustling sound and the delicious smell of food wafted onto the air. “Here’s a little bit for you. I’ll go and get a bowl. Some water, too.”
The man backed out, wriggling in the dirt. As soon as he was gone the cats surged forward, feeding ravenously on whatever was spilled on the dirt.
I alerted to the approach of the same person sooner than the cats, as if they were unable to identify his scent as it grew stronger. The males all reacted, though, when he reappeared at the hole, fleeing back to their corner. Only Mother Cat stood fast. A new bowl was shoved forward and there was a meal in it, but Mother Cat made no approach, just stood watching. I could sense her tension and knew she was ready to bolt and run if he tried to capture us like the other humans had.
“Here is some water, too. Do you have kittens? You look like you’re nursing. Did they take your babies? Oh, kitty, I am so sorry. They’re going to tear down these houses and put up an apartment complex. You and your family can’t stay here, okay?”
Eventually the man left, and the adult cats cautiously resumed eating. I sniffed Mother Cat’s mouth when she returned, but when I licked her face she turned abruptly away.
Time was marked by the shifting light pouring in from the square hole. More cats came; a few who had been living with us before, and a new female, whose arrival triggered a fight among the males that I watched with intense interest. One pair of combatants lay locked together for so long that the only way I knew they were not asleep was the way their tails flickered, not wagging in happiness but communicating a real distress. When they broke their clinch they stretched out on the ground, noses nearly touching, and made un-catlike sounds at each other. Another fight consisted of one male lying on his side and smacking another one, who was on all four feet. The standing one would tap the sprawling one on the top of the head and the one lying down would respond with a series of rapid clawings.
Why didn’t they all get up on their back two legs and attack each other? This behavior, while stressful for all the animals in the den, seemed utterly pointless.
Other than Mother Cat I had no interaction with the adults, who acted as if I did not exist. I tangled with the kittens, wrestling and climbing and chasing all day. Sometimes I would growl at them, irritated with their style of play, which just seemed wrong, somehow. I wanted to climb on their backs and chew on their necks, but they couldn’t seem to get the hang of this, going limp when I knocked them over or jumped on top of their tiny frames. Sometimes they wrapped their entire bodies around my snout, or batted at my face with teeny, sharp claws, pouncing on me from all angles.
At night I missed my siblings. I missed my mother. I had made a family, but I understood that the cats were different than I was. I had a pack, but it was a pack of kitties, which did not seem right. I felt restless and unhappy and at times I would whimper out my anguish and Mother Cat would lick me and I would feel somewhat better, but things were just not the way they should have been.
Nearly every day, the man came and brought food. Mother Cat punished me with a swift slap on my nose when I tried to approach him, and I learned the rules of the den: we were not to be seen by humans. None of the other felines seemed at all inclined to feel the touch of a person, but for me a growing desire to be held by him made it increasingly difficult to obey the laws of the den.
When Mother Cat stopped nursing us, we had to adjust to eating the meals the man supplied, which consisted of tasty, dried morsels and then sometimes exotic, wet flesh. Once I grew accustomed to the change it was far better for me—I had been so hungry for so long it seemed a natural condition, but now I could eat my fill and lap up as much water as I could hold. I consumed more than my sibling kitties combined, and was now noticeably larger than any of them, though they all were unimpressed by my size and resolutely refused to play properly, continuing to mostly claw at my nose.
We mimicked Mother Cat and shied away from the hole when the human presence filled it, but otherwise dared to flirt with the very edge, drinking in the rich aromas from outside. Mother Cat sometimes went out at night, and I could sense that the kittens all wanted to join her. For me, it was more the daylight that lured, but I was mindful of Mother Cat and knew she would swiftly punish any attempt to stray beyond the boundary.
One day the man, whose fragrances were as familiar to me now as Mother Cat’s, appeared just outside the hole, making sounds. I could sense other humans with him.
“They’re usually way toward the back. The mother comes closer when I bring food, but she won’t let me touch her.”
“Is there another way out of the crawl space besides this window?” It was a different voice, accompanied by different smells—a woman. I unconsciously wagged my tail.
“I don’t think so. How will this work?”
“We’ve got these big gloves to protect us, and if you’ll stay here with the net, you can catch any cats that make it past us. How many are there?”
“I don’t know, now. Until recently the female was obviously nursing, but if there are any kittens they don’t come out in the day. A couple others, I don’t know what sex. There used to be so many, but I guess the developer must have gotten them. He’s going to tear down this whole row of houses and put up an apartment complex.”
“He’ll never get a demolition permit with feral cats living here.”
“That’s probably why he did it. Do you think he hurt the ones he caught?”
“Um, okay, so, there’s no law against trapping and destroying cats living on your own property. I mean, he could have taken them to one of the other shelters, I guess.”
“There were a lot of them. The whole property was crawling with cats.”
“Thing is, I didn’t hear anything about a big bunch of cats showing up anywhere. Animal rescue is a pretty tight community; we all talk to each other. If twenty cats hit the system, I would have heard about it. You okay? Hey, sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“I’m fine. I just wish I had known it was going to happen.”
“You did the right thing by calling us, though, Lucas. We’ll find good homes for any cats we find. Ready?”
I had grown completely bored with the monotonous noises and was busily wrestling with the kittens when I felt Mother Cat stiffen, alarm jolting through her. Her unwinking eyes were on the hole, and her tail twitched. Her ears were flat back against her head. I regarded her curiously, ignoring the little male kitty who ran up, swatted my mouth, and darted away.
Then a light blazed and I understood her fear. Mother Cat fled toward the back wall, abandoning her young. I saw her slip soundlessly into the hidden crack just as two humans came in through the hole. The kittens milled in confusion, the male cats fled to the back of the den, and I shied away, afraid.
The light danced along the walls, then found me, blazing brightly in my face.
“Hey! There’s a puppy in here!”
“Hey kitty-kitty!” The woman crawled forward, reaching out. On her hands, thick cloth was redolent with traces of many different animals, mostly cats.
The kittens reacted by darting away in terror. Their flight was chaotic and without direction, and none of them ran to the crack in the wall where Mother Cat hid, though I could smell her in there, cowering and afraid. The other adult cats were little better, though they were mostly frozen, staring in dread at the approaching human. One of them broke for the hole and snarled when the woman caught him in her heavy mittens. She handed him carefully back to another pair of cloth-covered hands. Two more adults made it past her and out to freedom.
“Did you catch them?” the woman asked loudly.
“One of them!” came the answering shout. “The other one got away.”
As for me: I knew what I should do. I should go be with my mother. But something in me rebelled against this reaction—instead, I felt enticed by the woman wriggling toward me, fascinated by her. A compulsion seized me: though I had never experienced human touch, I had an acute sense of how it would feel, as if remembering something from long ago. The woman gestured toward me with her hands even as the rest of the adult cats bolted out the hole behind her. “Here, puppy!” I bounded forward, straight into her arms, my little tail wagging.
“Oh my God, you’re a cutie!”
“We caught two more!” shouted a voice from outside.
I licked the woman’s face, wiggling and squirming.
“Lucas! I’ve got the puppy, can you reach in and take him?” She lifted me up and examined my tummy. “Take her, I mean. She’s a girl.”
The man who had been bringing us food for the bowls appeared at the hole, his familiar smell flooding in. His hands reached out and gently wrapped themselves around me, and then he brought me out into the world. My heart was pounding, not in terror, but in total joy. I could still feel the kittens behind me, sense their fright, and Mother Cat was strong in the air, but right then I just wanted to be held by the man, to chew his fingers and pounce on him when he set me down and rolled me around in the cool dirt.
“You are so silly! You are such a silly puppy!”
While we played, the woman brought out the kittens one at a time and handed them to two men who put them into cages on the back of a truck. The little kitties were mewing in distress. Their appeals saddened me, because I was their big sister, but I could do nothing to help them. I expected that our mother would soon be joining them, and knew they would feel better then.
“I think we got them all,” the woman said, coming over to where I was playing with the man. “Except for the ones that ran out.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Your guys got theirs but I wasn’t any good at catching them.”
“It’s okay. It takes a lot of practice.”
“What will happen to the ones who took off?”
“Well, hopefully they won’t come back right away, if the workers are going to tear down the houses.” The woman knelt down to stroke my ears. Having attention from two humans at once was simply the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. “There weren’t any other dogs. I have no idea what this little one was doing down in there.”
“I never saw her before,” the man said. “It’s always just been cats. How old is she?”
“I don’t know, maybe eight weeks? She’s going to be big, you can tell that. Look at those paws.”
“Is it what, a shepherd? Mastiff?”
“No, I mean, there could be some mastiff in there, but I’m seeing Staffordshire or maybe rottie in the face. Hard to tell. Probably a whole cocktail of canine DNA.”
“She looks healthy. I mean, if she’s been living in the hole,” the man observed. He picked me up and I went limp in his hands, but when he brought me close I tried to chew his nose.
“Right, well, I doubt she’s been living there,” the woman said. “Probably just followed a kitten in, or the adult. Speaking of that, when was the last time you saw the mother cat?”
“It’s been a few days.”
“She wasn’t in the crawl space, so we must have come at the wrong time and she’s out hunting. If you see her, let me know, okay, Lucas?”
“Do you have a card or something?”
The man set me down and he and the woman stood up. She handed something to the man. I put my paws on his legs, wanting to sniff it. I was interested in everything the man was doing, and most of all wanted him to crouch back down and play with me some more.
“Audrey,” the man said, looking at the small thing he held between his fingers.
“If I’m not there, just talk to anyone who answers. They all know about this house. We’ll come out and try to catch any stragglers. Oh, I asked around, and nobody brought in a big colony of cats anywhere in Denver recently. I think we have to assume the worst.”
“How can someone do something like that?” the man replied, anguished-sounding. I jumped on his feet so that he’d know that if he was sad he had a puppy down here to make all of his worries go away.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand people at all, sometimes.”
“I feel really bad.”
“Don’t. You didn’t know what he was up to. Though I don’t know why they couldn’t be bothered to drive the animals to a shelter somewhere. We could have found homes for some of them, and we have connections to safe places for feral cats. Some people just can’t be bothered to do the right thing.” The woman picked me up. “Okay, little one, are you ready to go?”
I wagged, then twisted my head so I could see the man. It was his hands, more than anyone else’s, that I craved.
“I feel like that’s my dog. I mean, I found her, technically.”
“Oh.” She set me down and I went over to the man to chew on his shoes. “Well, I’m not supposed to adopt out an animal this way. There’s a procedure, I mean.”
“Except if it is my dog, it’s not an adoption.”
“Okay. Look. I don’t want this to get awkward or anything. Are you even in a position to take on a puppy? Where do you live?”
“Right there, in those apartments across the street. That’s how I saw the cats; I walk past here all the time. I just decided one day to feed them.”
“Do you live alone?”
Something very subtle changed in the man’s manner. I looked up at him alertly, wishing he would pick me up again. I wanted to lick his face. “No, I live with my mother.”
“No, it’s not what you are thinking. She’s ill. She’s a soldier and when she came back from Afghanistan she developed some symptoms. So I’m going to school and working with the Veteran’s Administration to try to get her the help she needs.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“I’m taking online classes. Pre-med. So I’m home a lot, and my mom is, too. We can give the puppy all the attention she needs. And to have a dog, I think it would be good for both of us. My mom can’t hold down a job just yet.”
He reached down and picked me up. Finally! He held me in his arms and I lay back and gazed at his face. Something significant was happening; I could sense it even though I was not sure what it was. The den, where I had been born and where Mother Cat still cowered, seemed like a place I was leaving behind. Now I would be with this man, wherever he took me. That was what I wanted: to be with him.
“Have you ever had a puppy? They’re a lot of work,” the woman asked.
“I lived with my aunt when I was growing up. She had two Yorkies.”
“This one is already bigger than a Yorkie. I’m sorry, Lucas, but I can’t. It’s unethical. We have a vetting process—one of the reasons why we get so few returns is that our placement protocols are so stringent.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying no. I can’t let you have her.”
The man looked down at me and smiled. “Oh, puppy, did you hear that? They want to take you away from me, do you want that?” He lowered his face to mine and I licked him and he smiled. “Puppy and I vote she stays with me. Two to one,” he told the woman blandly.
“Huh,” the woman replied.
“I think things happen for a reason, Audrey. There was a reason this little girl was under there, hiding with the cats, and I think that reason was for me to find her.”
“I’m sorry but there are rules.”
He nodded. “There are always rules, and there are always exceptions to the rules. This is one of those exceptions.”
They stood quietly for a moment. “People win with you? Arguments, I mean,” she asked finally.
He blinked. “Well, sure. Just not this one, I guess.”
She shook her head and smiled. “All right, well, like you said, you found her. Will you get her in to see a veterinarian right away? Like, tomorrow? If you’ll promise to do that, I’m okay with it I guess … Let me give you some stuff, I’ve got leashes and collars and puppy food.”
“Hey, puppy! Want to come live with me?”
There was a bright smile on his face, but I could sense something in his voice I did not understand. He was anxious, bothered about something. Whatever was going to happen next, it worried him.
* * *
Mother Cat did not come out. I could smell her when the man carried me away from the den, and imagined her still in the tight hiding place, cowering from the humans. I didn’t really understand this—what was there to be afraid of? I felt as if I had never seen anything as amazing as the man holding me, never experienced anything as wonderful as the feel of his hands on my fur.
When the people closed the door on their vehicle the sounds of my kitten brothers and sisters was abruptly cut off, and then the truck drove away, leaving only lingering traces of my feline family on the air. I wondered when I would see them again, but I did not have time to dwell on this odd separation, where my siblings went in one direction, our mother another, and me in a third. There were so many new sounds and sights, I was dizzy with it. When the man brought me into the place I would learn to call home, I smelled food and dust and chemicals and a woman. He set me down and the floor was luxuriously soft with carpet. I ran after him when he crossed the room and dove into his lap when he folded his legs and sat down to be with me.
I could sense the man’s anxiety rising, it was on his skin the way Mother Cat tensed when she knew humans were approaching the hole.
“Lucas?” A woman’s voice. I associated the voice with the scents of her layered on every object in the room.
A woman walked into the room and stopped. I ran to meet her, wagging, wanting to lick her hands. “What?” Her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened.
“It’s a puppy.”
She knelt and held out her hands and I went for them, rolling on my back and chewing on her fingers. “Well, I can see it is a puppy, Lucas. What is it doing here?”
“It’s a she.”
“That is not an answer to my question.”
“The people came from the animal rescue to get the rest of the cats. Most of them, anyway. There was a litter of new kittens, and this little puppy was under the house with them,” he said.
“And you brought her home because…”
He came over and squatted next to the woman and now I had both people touching me!
“Because look at her. Someone abandoned her and she found her way to the crawl space and probably would have starved under there.”
“But you can’t have a dog, Lucas.”
The man’s fear was gone now, but I felt something else stirring in him, a different emotion. His body was stiffer, his face drawing tight. “I knew you would say that.”
“Of course I would say that. We’re barely hanging on, here, Lucas. You know how expensive a dog is? Vet bills and dog food, it adds up pretty quickly,” she said.
“I’ve got a second interview at the VA, and they said Dr. Gann is bound to approve me—I know everybody there, now. So I’ll have a job. I’ll have the money.”
His hands were stroking me, and I felt myself relaxing, getting sleepy.
“It’s not just the money. We talked about this. I really want you to focus on getting into med school.”
“I am focused!” His voice was sharp and I snapped out of my fatigue. “Do you have a problem with my grades? If that’s the issue, let’s talk about it.”
“Obviously not, Lucas. Grades, come on. That you can carry the load you’ve got and hold a four-point oh is amazing to me.”
“So is it that you don’t want me to have a dog, or that you don’t want me making such a big decision on my own?”
His tone made me anxious. I nosed him, hoping he would play with me and forget about what was making him upset.
There was a long silence. “Okay. You know what? I keep forgetting you’re nearly twenty-four years old. It’s just too easy to fall back into the mother-son dynamic we’ve always had.”
“Always had.” His voice was flat.
Another silence. “Yes, except for most of your childhood. You’re right,” she said sadly.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I brought that up. I didn’t mean anything.”
“No, no, you’re right. And we can talk about it as often as you need to, and I will always agree with you, because I have made so many, many bad decisions in my life, and so many of them concern leaving you. But I’m trying to make up for that now.”
“I know you are, Mom.”
“You’re right about the puppy. My reflex is to act as if you’re still a teenager and not my adult roommate. But let’s think about this, Lucas. Our lease doesn’t even allow pets in the building.”
“Who is going to know? Probably the only advantage of having what everyone thinks is the crummiest apartment in the complex is that the door opens onto the street instead of the courtyard. I’ll pick her up and walk outside and by the time I put her down no one from the building will even know where I came from. I’ll never let her out in the courtyard and I’ll keep her on a leash.” He flipped me over on my back and kissed my stomach.
“You’ve never had a dog. It’s a big responsibility.”
The man didn’t say anything, he just kept nuzzling me. The woman laughed then, a happy, light sound. “I guess if there’s anything I don’t need to lecture you about, it’s being responsible.”
* * *
Over the next several days, I adjusted to my new, wonderful life. The woman was named Mom, I learned, and the man was Lucas. “Want a treat, Bella? Treat?”
I gazed up at Lucas, feeling something was expected of me, but not comprehending any of it. Then he pulled his hand out of his pocket and gave me a small chunk of meat, unleashing a flood of delicious sensations on my tongue.
Treat! Soon it was my favorite word.
I slept with Lucas, cuddled right next to him in a soft pile of blankets that I shredded a little until I understood how unhappy this made him. Lying next to him was even more comforting than being pressed up against Mother Cat. Sometimes I gently took his fingers in my mouth while he dozed, not to bite, but just to apply the gentlest of nibbles, so full of love my jaw ached with it.
He called me Bella. Several times a day, Lucas would bring out the leash, which was what he called the thing that snapped to the “collar.” He would use the leash to drag me in the direction he wanted to go. At first I hated the thing, because it made no sense to me that I was pulled by the neck in one direction when I smelled wonderful things in another. But then I learned that when the leash was unhooked from its place by the door we would be going for a “walk,” and did I delight in doing that! I also loved when we came home and Mom would be there and I would run to her for hugs, and I loved when Lucas put food in my bowl or when he would sit so that I could play with his feet.
I loved wrestling with him and the way he would hold me in his lap. I loved him. My world had Lucas at its center and when my eyes were open or my nose was active I was seeking him. Every day brought new joys, new things to do with my Lucas, my person.
“Bella, you are the best little puppy in the world,” he told me often, kissing me.
My name was Bella. Soon that’s how I thought of myself: Bella.
At least once a day we would go to the den. There were several houses in a row with no people living in them, but only one had cats. They were walled off by a mesh fence, but Lucas would pull at the wires where they were affixed to a pole and then we would be inside.
The smell of Mother Cat was still strong in the den, though the signs of the kittens were fading from the area. I also knew some of the male cats had returned. Lucas would put food and water down but I wasn’t allowed to eat it. Nor was I allowed to go into the den to see my mother.
“See her? See the kitty? She’s just there, watching us, Bella. You can barely make her out in the shadows,” Lucas would say softly.
I loved hearing my name. I could sense a question in Lucas’s voice but it did not lead to any treats for me. I might not understand what he was saying, but I was with Lucas, so nothing else mattered.
One afternoon I was lying on Lucas’s foot, where I had collapsed after a particularly vicious game of attack-the-shoes. I was not comfortable, lying there, but was too exhausted to move, so my head was much lower than the rest of my body.
I heard a noisy rumble, getting louder, and eventually Lucas shifted in a way that suggested he had heard it, too.
“What’s that, Bella?”
I struggled to my feet. Walk? Treat? Lucas went to the window and looked out.
“Mom!” he shouted in alarm.
Mom came out of her room. “What is it?”
“They’re unloading a backhoe! They’re going to knock down the house, and there are still cats living in there!” He went to a drawer and yanked it open while Mom went to the window. “Okay, look. Here’s the card. Call the rescue. Ask for Audrey, but if she’s not there, just tell them that the developer is going to tear down the house and the cats will be killed!”
I could clearly feel the fear pouring off of Lucas as he went to get the leash. He snapped it onto me. I shook, fully awake.
“I’ll call. What are you going to do?” Mom asked.
“I have to stop them.” He opened the door.
“I have to stop them!”
Together, we ran outside.
Lucas ran out the door, pulling me along behind him. We dashed across the street. The fence had been partially taken down. Some men were clustered around the den and there was a large, growly machine. The noise it made was startlingly deep and loud. I squatted to pee and one of the men broke away from the group and came over to us. He had shoes from which wafted fascinating tangs of oils and other sharp fragrances I had never encountered.
“There are still cats living under there,” Lucas told the man as he approached. Lucas was panting and his heart was pounding when he picked me up and held me against his chest.
“What are you talking about?” the man asked, frowning.
“Cats. There are cats living in the crawl space. You can’t tear down the house; it will kill them. You can do the others, but this one has animals.”
The man chewed his lip. He looked back over at his friends, and then at me. “Nice puppy.” His hand was roughly textured when it rubbed my head, and I smelled chemicals and soils, both strong and faint on his skin.
Lucas took a deep breath. “Thanks.”
“What is she, a daniff?”
“Your puppy. Friend of mine has a daniff, a dane-mastiff. Looked a lot like this when he was just a little guy. I like dogs.”
“That’s great. Maybe, I don’t know what breed she is. Actually, she was rescued from the crawl space under the house you’re getting ready to demolish. There were all kinds of cats, and many of them are still there. That’s what I am trying to explain, that not all the animals were caught. So you can’t legally tear down a house with feral cats living under it.”
From the hole that led to the den I could smell Mother Cat, and knew she had cautiously come closer. I wiggled, wanting to go see her, but Lucas’s hand stopped me. I loved to be held by him but sometimes it frustrated me when it was time to play.
“Legally,” the man repeated thoughtfully. “Yeah, well, I’ve got the demolition permit. It’s posted right there, see? So actually it is legal. I got nothing against cats, except that maybe my girlfriend’s got a couple too many. But I have to do my job. Understand? It’s not personal.”
“It is personal. It’s personal to the cats. It’s personal to me,” Lucas declared. “They are all alone in the world. Abandoned. I’m all they’ve got.”
“Okay, well, I’m not going to debate on this.”
“We called the animal rescue people.”
“Not my concern. We can’t wait for them.”
“No!” Lucas strode over and stood in front of the big machine and I followed, keeping the leash limp between us. “You can’t do this.”
I stared up at the huge thing, not comprehending.
“You’re starting to piss me off here, pal. Get out of the way. You’re trespassing.”
“I’m not moving.” Lucas picked me up and held me to his chest.
The man stepped closer to us, staring at Lucas. They were the same height, eye-to-eye. Lucas and I stared back. I wagged.
“You really want to get into this?” the man asked softly.
“Mind if I set my dog down first?”
The man looked away in disgust. “Momma said there’d be days like this,” he muttered.
“Hey, Dale!” one of the other men yelled. “I just talked to Gunter. He says he’ll be right here.”
“Okay. Good. He can deal with the protester, then.” The man turned and walked back to be with his friends. I wondered if the rest of them would come over to pet me. I would like that.
Soon a big, dark car pulled up and a man stood up out of it. He went over and talked to the other men, who all looked over at me because I was the only dog there. Then the man came over to see me. He was taller than Lucas and bigger around. When he came close I could smell smoke and some meats and something sweet on his clothing and his breath. “So what’s this about?” he asked Lucas.
“There are still some cats living under the house. I know you wouldn’t want to risk hurting them,” Lucas replied.
The man shook his head. “There are no cats. We got all the cats.”
“No, you didn’t. There are still some under there. At least three.”
“Well, you’re wrong and I don’t have time for this. We’re already behind schedule because of the damn cats, and I’m not losing another day on it. I’m got apartments to build.”
“What did you do? With all the cats that were here? Some of them were little kittens!”
“That is not your business. None of this is your business.”
“Yes, it is. I live right across the street. I see the cats come and go.”
“Good for you. What’s your name?”
“Lucas. Lucas Ray.”
“I’m Gunter Beckenbauer.” The man reached out and gripped Lucas’s hand for a moment, but then let go. When Lucas’s hand returned to holding me, there was meat and smoke on his skin. I sniffed carefully.
“You the one been rolling back my fence? I’ve sent guys to fix it three times already.”
Lucas didn’t say anything. Lying in his arms, I was beginning to feel drowsy.
“And it’s you feeding the cats, that’s obvious. Which isn’t exactly helping the situation, you know?”
“You’re saying you’d want them to starve?”
“They’re cats. They kill birds and mice, or maybe you didn’t know that. So they don’t starve.”
“That’s not true. They way over-reproduce. If they aren’t caught and sterilized, they have litters and most of the kittens die of hunger or disease brought on by malnutrition.”
“And that’s my fault?”
“No. Look. All I’m asking is that you give people time to deal with this humanely. There are organizations dedicated to this, to rescuing animals who, through no fault of their own, are abandoned and living treacherous lives. We called one and they are on their way out here now. Let them do their job, and then you can do yours.”
The smoky-meat man had listened to Lucas but was still shaking his head. “Okay, that sounds like you’re quoting from a Web site or something, but it’s not what we’re talking about now. You got any idea how hard it is to get anything built these days, Lucas? There’s about a dozen agencies you have to work with. I finally got my demo permit after a year delay. A year. So I have to get working, now.”
“I’m not moving.”
“You’re seriously going to stand in front of a backhoe while it knocks down a house? You could get killed.”
“You know what? I was going to do this the easy way, but you’re forcing my hand. I’m calling the cops.”
“Anybody ever tell you you’re a stubborn little bastard?”
“Stubborn, maybe,” Lucas replied. “No one ever says I’m little.”
“Huh. You are a real piece of work.”
The man walked away without petting me, which was very unusual. We stood still for a long moment. The big machine went silent, and when the rumble quieted my body felt different, as if something had been squeezing me and now had stopped. Lucas put me down and I sniffed carefully at the dirt. I wanted to play but Lucas just wanted to stand there, and the leash did not give me much room to run around.
I wagged when more people showed up. There was a woman and a man, and they got out of yet another car. They were both wearing dark clothing and had metal objects on their hips.
“Police,” Lucas observed quietly. “Well, Bella, let’s see what happens now that the police are here.”
The two people in dark clothes went over and spoke to the man with the smoky meat fingers. Lucas seemed a little uneasy, but we did not move. I yawned, then wagged excitedly when the two people came over to see me. I could smell a dog on the woman, but not on the man.
“Oh my God, that’s a cute puppy,” the woman said warmly.
“This is Bella,” Lucas greeted. I loved that they were talking about me!
The woman was smiling at me. “What’s your name?”
“Lucas. Lucas Ray.”
“Okay, Lucas. Why don’t you tell us what is going on,” her male friend said.
The man spoke to Lucas while the woman knelt and played with me. I jumped on her hand. Now that I could sniff her I realized she actually had the scent of two separate dogs on her fingers. I licked them and could taste the dogs. The metal objects at her side rattled.
When the woman stood up I looked back to Lucas.
“But who is supposed to protect the cats, then, if not the police?” Lucas asked. It was the second time he had used that word “police.” I could tell he was upset and went to sit at his feet, hoping to help him be happy.
“You don’t have a role to play here. Understand?” The man in dark clothes gestured to the big machine. “I get why this bothers you, but you can’t interfere with a construction project. If you don’t leave we’re going to have to take you in.”
The woman with the two-dog smells touched Lucas on the arm. “The best thing for you and your puppy is to go home now.”
“Will you at least shine your flashlight in the crawl space?” Lucas asked. “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
“I’m not sure that would make any difference,” the woman replied.
I watched as another car pulled up. This one was redolent with dogs and cats and even other animals. I lifted my nose in the air, sorting it all out.
The new vehicle contained a woman and a man. The man reached into the backseat and pulled out something big and set it on his shoulder. I could not smell what it was. He touched it and a strong light came from it, reminding me of the time when lights flooded in from the hole and flashed on the cats as they ran from it in the den.
I knew the woman. She was the person who had climbed under the house the day I met Lucas. I wagged at both the newcomers, happy to see them. There were so many people here!
“Hi, Audrey,” Lucas greeted.
I wanted to go see the woman, who I decided was named Audrey, but she and her friend stopped short of coming up to us. The light tracked across Lucas’s face and then settled on the dirt in front of the hole to the den.
The man with the smoky meat smells strode over. His footsteps were heavy and he gestured with his hands like a man throwing a toy for a dog. “Hey! There’s no filming here.”
Audrey moved closer to the man with the thing on his shoulder. “We’re filming you because you’re tearing down a dwelling that is home to feral cats!”
The smoky-meat man shook his head. “There are no cats here anymore!”
I tensed—Mother Cat! She paused for a moment at the edge of the hole, assessing her situation, and then streaked out into the open, running right past us and vanishing into some bushes at the back fence. I forgot I was on the leash when I tried to chase after her, pulling up short. Frustrated, I sat and yelped.
“Did you get that?” Audrey asked her friend.
“I got it,” replied the man with the thing on his shoulder.
“So, no cats?” Lucas said to the smoky-meat man.
“I want you to arrest those people,” the man shouted at the people in dark clothes.
“They’re standing on the sidewalk,” the man in the dark clothes observed calmly. “No law against that.”
“We’re not going to arrest anyone for filming,” the woman with the two-dog smell added. “And you did tell us there were no cats.”
“I’m with animal rescue,” Audrey said from where she stood. “We’ve already put in a call to the building commission. They are pulling the demolition permit because of the presence of feral cats. Officers, if he tears down this house, it will be an illegal act.”
“That’s impossible,” smoky-meat man sneered. “They don’t move that fast. They don’t even answer the damn phone that fast.”
“They do when one of our board members calls. She’s a county commissioner,” Audrey replied.
The two people in dark clothes looked at each other. “This is so not our department,” the man said.
“But you saw the cat. Animal welfare is your department,” Audrey said. I wondered why she didn’t come over, but she stood by where the cars were parked. I wanted her to play with us!
“This is costing me money while everyone stands around! I expect the police to do their job and get these people the hell out of here!” the man with the smoky meat smell said angrily.
Police—people who wore dark clothes and had objects on their hips were police. Both of them stiffened. “Sir,” the woman said to Lucas, “would you please take your dog and move to the sidewalk?”
“Not if he is going to pull a house down on top of a bunch of helpless cats,” Lucas responded stubbornly.
“Jesus Christ!” the smoky-meat man shouted.
The man and the woman in dark clothes looked at each other. “Lucas. If I have to ask you again I’m going to cuff you and put you in the back of our unit,” the woman police said.
Lucas stood quietly for a moment, and then he and I went over so that Audrey could pet me. I was so happy to see her! And I was glad, too, that smoky-meat man and the police followed so we could all be together.
Smoky-meat man took a deep breath. “There were a couple dozen cats here, but not anymore. The cat we just saw could have been in there checking things out—it doesn’t mean it lives there.”
“I see her every day,” Lucas told them. A piece of paper fluttered past in the wind and I strained to get at it, but the leash held me back. “She does so live there. A couple others, too.”
“About all those cats. What shelter did you take them to? I can’t find them in the system anywhere,” Audrey asked pointedly.
“Okay, first, this guy Lucas has been cutting my fence, officers. He’s been feeding the cats! And second, she’s right, we brought in an outside company to humanely trap them. I don’t know what they did with them. Probably found them all good homes.”
“So he’s been feeding the cats that you say aren’t here anymore.” The woman in dark clothing nodded.
Everyone stood quietly for a moment. I yawned.
“Hey, Gunter!” one of the dusty men called. “I got Mandy on the phone. She says it’s about your permit.”
* * *
Eventually most of the people left. Audrey knelt and played with me in the sparse grass while her friend put the thing with the light back in her car.
“That was genius, showing up with a news camera,” Lucas said.
Audrey laughed. “That was a complete accident. I was driving my brother around shooting B roll. He’s in film school at CU Boulder. When your mom called we came right over and we thought it would be a great idea to make it look like Fox 31 or something.” She picked me up and kissed my nose and I licked her. “You are such a sweetie.” She put me back down.
“Her name is Bella.”
I looked up at Lucas at the sound of my name.
“Bella!” Audrey said happily. I put my paws on her knees, trying to climb up to her face. “You are going to be such a big doggie when you grow up!”
“Hey, uh, Audrey?” Lucas made a small coughing sound in his throat, and I glanced up, sensing a rising tension. Audrey smiled up at him. “I was thinking it would be fun if you and I went out. And look, Bella agrees.”
“Oh.” Audrey stood up abruptly. I wandered over to attack Lucas’s shoes. “That’s sweet, Lucas. Actually, though, I just moved in with my boyfriend. It’s pretty serious. We’re serious, I mean.”
“Sure. No, of course.”
“Hey, Audrey! Can we get going? I want to get out to Golden before magic hour,” the man yelled out the car window. Sleepy, I yawned and spread out on the grass, thinking it was a good time for a nap. I closed my eyes and didn’t open them when Lucas picked me up.
* * *
Later I was playing with Lucas on the soft floor of the big room of the house, what they called the living room. He was pulling a string and I would jump on it and run away with it, but it would slip out of my mouth and, laughing, he would pull it along the floor again until I could pounce. I was so content to be with him, so happy to hear his laughter, that I could have played that game all night.
There was a knock at the door and Lucas became still for a moment, and then went over to it. I followed him. He put his eye to the door while I smelled the scent of a man on the colder air seeping through the bottom crack. It was the man from before, the one who smelled like smoke and meat.
Lucas went rigid. The man knocked again. Finally Lucas opened the door, sweeping me away with his foot as he did so.
“You and me need to talk,” the man said to Lucas.
Copyright © 2017 by W. Bruce Cameron
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