Linda Birch raced out the back door into the snow. “Help, somebody help me!” She slipped and fell, struggled to her feet, and left pink handprints when she levered herself upright.
The butcher knife had left a three-inch gash in her calf. Her stomach burned and she held her left hand hard against the stab wound in her side.
The screen door banged open. Benny stumbled down the slick steps.
She sobbed, held bloody palms toward her son. “Stop! Please!” Linda ignored the cold on her bare legs. Her bright pink Snuggie dragged through the snow.
Benny didn’t mean it. His expression remained as serene and blank as the snow that blanketed the lawn. He drew his right thumb along the blade and stared at the red line that appeared. He repeated the gesture with his left thumb and crimson splattered onto the snow like the petals of a wind-shattered rose.
“No, stop, honey. Don’t hurt yourself.” Linda stumbled toward her sixteen-year-old son, her fuzzy slippers clotted with ice and clumsy on her feet. She stopped when Benny regarded her for the briefest moment.
Linda saw that glint of recognition, a connection, before his focus evaporated. Her eyes welled. She had the real Benny for such a short time before the money disappeared. But she had no choice, she couldn’t pay more. Insurance denied experimental trials. Savings had lasted less than a year. They were monsters to hold a child’s health for ransom.
Benny sliced his other hand. Linda ignored her own injuries. “Let me have the knife, Benny.” She kept her words quiet, authoritative, despite the pain that made her tremble.
Her beautiful baby boy’s five-foot-ten-inch height dwarfed her dumpy body. Snow whirled overhead and made her dizzy when she looked up. She grabbed Benny’s arm to keep from falling.
“No!” He screamed. The knife lashed out and just missed Linda’s cheek. She fell to her knees.
He slashed the air above her head, playing target practice with individual flakes as Linda huddled before him. She prayed the tantrum would pass so she could get him back inside before they both caught pneumonia. She coughed. Spat blood onto the snow. How could that be?
Linda pulled her hand from the warm wetness on the front of her Snuggie. It had been barely a scratch, she was sure. Benny had had his share of tantrums. He’d scared her with the knife, so she ran. That made him even more scared, she reasoned, and prompted him to follow her. He’d done so well recently, and even had a job at the local Piggly Wiggly bagging groceries.
She waited until he stopped waving the knife to hold out her hand. She didn’t think her legs would support her, and Linda reminded herself to start that diet soon. Maybe the New Year’s resolution would stick this time. “Help Momma up, Benny.”
“Momma?” Benny stared at her and at the splatters around them. He stuck one hand in his pocket before he stepped directly into the blood spill. His shoes polka-dotted the ground. He tilted his head to see better and deliberately created stamp-art with his feet. Benny held eye contact for ten seconds this time before breaking to stare at his shoes. He paddled in the blood again.
Linda held out her hand again. Spoke words devoid of emotion, matter-of-fact. “Sweetie, let’s not make more of a mess. Give your Momma a little boost up, honey.”
His left hand moved inside his pocket. She could hear the click of shiny pennies under his busy fingers. Repetitive motions—spinning, rocking, twirling; what the experts called stimming—offered a focus that helped relieve stress. But Benny hadn’t twirled, spun or rocked for over six weeks. He made direct eye contact, even let her touch him briefly—and touched her in return without prompting. He spoke. He made sense. They communicated. The butterfly had broken free, a true miracle.
Benny knelt down in the snow next to Linda. “Sorry, Momma. Sorry,” he said. And then he stabbed her until she stopped moving.
September Day sloshed another half cup of coffee into the giant #1-Bitch mug, and glared out the frosty breakfast nook windows. North Texas didn’t get snow. That’s why she’d moved back home—well, one of several reasons. She shivered, relishing the warmth of the beverage, and toasted the storm with a curse. “Damn false advertising.” Her cat Macy meowed agreement.
The blizzard drove icy wind through cracks in the antique windows and made the just-in-case candles on the dark countertop sputter. She pulled the fuzzy bathrobe closer around her neck. Normally the kitchen’s stained glass spilled peacock-bright color into the kitchen. Not today, though. The reinforced security grills on the windows and dark clouds outside transformed the room’s slate floor, bright countertops and brushed-steel appliances into a grim cell.
Overhead lights flickered on, off and back on again. They’d done that for the past hour. Crap. More stuff for the contractors to fix. One candle guttered in the draft, and September mentally added window caulk to her list. She prayed the electricity wouldn’t go out, since the backup generator in the garage would take finagling to find, let alone to start.
She added a dollop of flavored cream to her cup and replaced the lid that kept Macy’s paws at bay. The longhair sable and white cat sat like a furry centerpiece on the rose-patterned glass table. He mewed in frustration when September set her covered mug next to the muffin saucer he’d already licked clean. A white paw patted the cup’s lid.
September plopped into one of four wrought iron chairs and pulled the mug out of the cat’s reach. “Nope, I know where you put your feet.”
Macy paced. His tail dry-painted September’s cheek and wove in and out of her long wavy mane. Green slanted eyes, coffee-dark hair, hidden claws, and enigmatic smile—she’d been told more than once that she and the cat matched in both personality and looks. Mom wanted her to dye the white skunk streak at her left temple, but September couldn’t be bothered, not anymore. In Mom’s high-falutin’ social circles of perfectly coifed dowagers it served as a thumb-your-nose warning to keep strangers at bay.
She gave the cat’s elevator-butt pose a final pat and opened the DayMinder. Macy made a disgusted mffft sound, gathered himself and vaulted to the top the fridge. “Sure, go ahead and sulk. You’re wired enough without caffeine.”
Outside, gusts flailed the November blooms of the Belinda’s Rose against the window beside the new steel door. At least the cold couldn’t sneak through that barrier. In fact, the temperature change had shifted the door frame so much that it took an enormous effort to latch. That was fine with her. If it was hard to latch, the door offered even more security.
The weather not only derailed her schedule, the cold hurt like a bastard. September wrapped both hands around the mug. Her fingernails had already turned blue-white, and she couldn’t feel her toes despite insulated ski socks and slippers. Not even flannel PJs, long underwear and a thick robe proved adequate against the weather.
She checked the thermostat for the third time—68 degrees—to save money, for crying out loud. “Screw it.” Some old habits she could afford to break. She cranked the dial to 78, blessing the contractors for the gas-fueled furnace and hot water tanks.
Her DayMinder was choked with appointments, notes, and prompts. She’d entered most of them on her new phone, currently charging on the counter, but preferred the old-fangled paper version. “Busy is good. Except on snowy days.”
Hell, she didn’t want to risk the roads in this weather either. But she could damage control other deadlines she’d have to miss. She’d already left a message with the lawyers postponing the deposition on the dog bite case since she couldn’t evaluate the dogs at the shelter until the weather settled. But fast talk and a good phone connection might allow her to keep other appointments. September dialed, sticking her free hand beneath her armpit to warm her fingers.
“WZPP, you’ve reached ZAP105 FM Radio, giving you the best easy-listening 24/7, how may I direct your call?”
“Hey, Anita, it’s September. Could you—”
“Feels more like December.”
September rolled her eyes. “Ha ha, funny lady, never heard that before. C’mon, it’s cold and I’m in a pissy mood. Could you cut the jokes for once?”
“I’ve been here all night, still wondering how to get home, so my bad mood trumps yours, kiddo.” Anita paused to blow her nose. “You want to talk to Humphrey, I guess. I’ll connect.”
Before she could say another word, September was plunged into the station’s easy-listening hell. The thirty seconds lasted a lifetime before Humphrey’s Jolly-Green-Giant voice broke in.
“ZAP, this is Humphrey Fish.”
“It’s me, September. I can’t make it to the station. We’ll have to do a phoner for the Pet Peeves program today.” Before he could protest, she added a sweetener. “I’ll do it for free. And there’ll be a bunch of calls today with everything shut down, so the sponsors won’t care.” Macy chirruped, and dove off his favorite perch to wind around her ankles.
“Did you bring this sucky weather with you?” Humphrey didn’t soften his sarcasm. September imagined him bouncing up and down, a human beach ball with legs. “I thought Hoosiers drove in snow nine months out of the year, and now you’re afraid of a little flurry?”
“There’s a reason I moved.” Let him think the move was only about the weather, she thought, swallowing a slug of the strong coffee. “Have you snuck outside your little glass box lately? It’s the freakin’ ice age out there.”
Humphrey snorted. “Never took you for a weenie, September.”
If only he knew. “I know how to drive. It’s the local amateurs that scare the crappiocca out of me. Texans hit the gas to get out of it quicker.” Macy mewed his agreement and patted her leg.
Humphrey’s exasperation made him sound like a weasel on steroids. “C’mon, in-studio was part of the deal. And you’ve only been here once. Have something against leaving home, do you?” He paused. “Can we hurry this up? There’s a live promo in thirty seconds.”
September bit back a retort. She could leave the house anytime she wanted. It wasn’t as if she lived in fear, not at all. She’d moved home to be closer to family. But when the Chicago habit of looking over her shoulder had been broken in South Bend, look what had happened.
She mentally shook herself. Once her hands and feet adjusted, she’d better tolerate the cold, and could run over to the radio station as promised. Besides, the Reynaud’s episodes never lasted for long. And she wanted the radio platform. Her breath quickened at the thought of leaving the house. She hated driving on snow, that was why—but she told herself anything worthwhile came with hurdles.
“Okay. I’ll get there. Just let me get caffeinated first. Oh, and put the state police on speed dial, ready to have them thaw me out of a drift come next May.” She heard him snort back a chuckle and her shoulders relaxed. She wouldn’t have to leave the house.
“Okay, okay already, you win. But call in five minutes before. No, make that ten minutes before air. Use a landline. Cell phones are shit on air. We’ll run with an expanded Pet Peeves, and double-up on the calls. I’ll promo between now and then to get email questions to start us off. Frog-on-a-stick, gotta run.”
The sudden dead air ended the conversation. The ten-minute weekly pet advice show got the word out better than paid ads, although the tiny stipend Humphrey called a paycheck barely covered the cost of caffeine. Her pet behavior consulting business included advice by phone, although in-person training was ideal, and the radio show and her regular column in the local paper drove more than enough clients to her subscription-only pet advice website.
Besides, she didn’t need much, and never would again. Chris had seen to that. She took a shuddering breath. Just a random thought bushwhacked her emotions. Christopher Day was supposed to have been part of her dreams, THEIR dreams.
September chugged half of the too-sweet coffee. She cradled the oversize mug, treasured for more than the warmth. Chris had bought it for her at a dog show. They’d often exchanged crap gifts for no reason, just to make each other smile. It was his last gift.
She set the mug down with a clunk. Macy grumbled and pressed his forehead against her socks. She stooped to smooth his fur, and her tight throat relaxed. “Thanks, buddy, but I’m fine. Later we’ll play laser tag, okay?”
The cat reacted to the “play” word, and leaped onto the wrap-around counter that edged three-quarters of the kitchen proper. He trotted to the corner cupboard next to the fridge, and pawed open the door. Macy scrabbled inside, his plume tail drawing figures in the air, and backed out dragging the stuffed mouse toy by one ear. He pushed the toy to the edge of the counter, dropping Mickey at her feet, and meowed with expectation.
She waved one finger at the cat. He sat up and begged. “If you want it, then speak, Macy.” When he meowed on cue, she tossed the toy across the room. “Kill it, kill it!” Macy raced after it, grappled the toy, fell on his side and bunny-kicked Mickey into submission.
September gulped another slug of coffee and checked her watch. Time enough for a hot shower before the radio show. Before she’d shuffled halfway across the kitchen, the phone chirruped. September hurried to grab the phone where it charged on the countertop before Macy decided to attack it like his toy.
September glanced at the display, sighed, and answered. “Hello, Mom.”
“Holy catfish, we’ve already got six inches and it’s still dumping everywhere! What’s the weather like there?”
“I live seven miles away from you. What do you think?” The overhead lights remained a bright, steady glow. “I’ve got a generator in the garage if it gets worse, but so far the heat and lights are good.” She watched Macy grab his Mickey and stash it back into his favorite cupboard.
“But you still have drywall to do. Doesn’t the weather have to be good for drywall work?” She hesitated before rushing on. “I know you wanted the housewarming on Thanksgiving, dear. Maybe next year instead.”
“Not a housewarming. We’ve been over this. I’m having the whole family here for Thanksgiving.” Macy left the cupboard and returned to paw September’s leg, one claw snagging the fabric. She bent to unhook the nail. “There’s two weeks to get it done, Mom.”
“We could gather at your brother’s, or even one of the girls’.”
“Mom, stop.” She bit her lip and struggled to keep her temper in check.
“I’ll make some calls, honey. Don’t you worry a bit.”
“I said no.” September took a breath. “Look, Mom, let me do this. I need to do this. It’ll be fine.” She’d only been back in Heartland for a few months, but it didn’t take long to remember why she’d left home and stayed away for ten years. “I’ve got everything planned. The kitchen’s finished, plumbing and electrical passed inspection, and the security system works great. Remember, I told you and Dad the password when I gave you the extra keys?” She kept talking when her mother would have interrupted. “Dining room furniture will be here next week.” She noticed the candles dripping wax on the new granite countertop and blew them out. “Macy’s pet gates work just as well for kids.”
“Don’t be stubborn and spoil the holiday for everyone.”
The doorbell bonged, followed by immediate pounding that made September’s pulse thrum. “Mom, someone’s at the door. Don’t worry, Thanksgiving will be great. For once, just trust me.”
She punched off the phone to stop further argument. Pounding knocks took turns with the doorbell chimes. Nobody in their right mind would be out in this mess. She carefully stepped through and latched the pet gate before hurrying to the front entry.
Three deadbolts secured the stained glass front door. September peered through wavy glass and her heart leaped with sudden nerves. This couldn’t be good.
Two uniformed cops stood on the front step, their shoulders powdered with white. September tightened the belt of her robe and smoothed unruly hair as though that would calm her racing pulse. She pressed the button beside the door to activate the speaker. “Can I help you?”
The bigger man answered. “Ma’am. I’m Officer Leonard Pike, and this is my partner, Officer Jeff Combs.” Pike was almost a foot taller than her own five-feet-six-inches. His bulky long coat didn’t camouflage his extra sixty pounds. A single black unibrow rose above horn-rimmed glasses, and his earflap hat sat too high to fully protect his bald head.
“Do you have identification?” Chris had taught her well. Unexpected visits never brought good news. Police don’t do social calls.
Both men pressed identification against the glass. “Can we come in?”
She unlocked all three deadbolts and cracked the door as far as the chain allowed, but didn’t invite them in. September shivered in the brutal wind. If she invited them in, she could close and lock the door again. But she didn’t want strangers in her house. “What can I do for you?” She hoped they’d take the hint and leave quickly.
“We’re on our way back from an accident.” Officer Combs looked half his partner’s age. Despite the youthful expression and athletic carriage, worry lines and the cleft chin relieved an otherwise too pretty face. “There’s smoke pouring out the side of your house. Over there.” He waved.
“Smoke? Oh crap! Come in already. But lock the door behind you.” She rushed back into the kitchen. “Has to be the clothes dryer.” September fumbled with the pet door into the kitchen, racing to the adjoining laundry room, one of the first rooms the contractors had finished. When she opened the door, white smoke filled the upper half of the room. “Why the hell didn’t my alarm go off?” The contractor would hear about this.
Officer Combs caught her arm to stop her rush into the room. “Do you have an extinguisher? Where’s your breaker box?” He turned to the older officer. “Call it in, why don’t you, Lenny?” He pulled off his hat, and his light brown hair crackled and stood off his head with static electricity.
September jerked away from his touch. “We’ll have it out before they get here in the snow.” She hurried into the tiny room where the clothes dryer nestled against the wall and couldn’t be easily unplugged. “Aw, hell.” She punched buttons on the dryer until it stopped, pulled open the door of the front loader, and watched with disbelief as acrid smoke flowed out. “The machine’s not even three weeks old.”
Bending low, Combs viewed September’s unmentionables. “No fire. Caught it in time.” He straightened with a grin. “I’ve been curious to see the inside of the Ulrich place since I was a kid. Didn’t want it to burn before I got the chance.”
September kicked the dryer and winced, remembering too late she was wearing slippers. “Need to call the company. At least it’s under warranty.” Just what she needed, a game of telephone gotcha with the store. Nothing was easy.
“Ma’am? Do you need us to call for assistance?” Pike leaned his oversize frame against the doorway, pulling off his gloves to fish a tissue from his pocket and honked his nose into it. “That’s some smell. Might want to open the window or crack the door.” He nodded toward the solid door in the nearby breakfast nook. “Smoke will set off your kitchen alarm if you don’t air it out.” Pike looked around the room, tossing the used tissue in the trash before adjusting his cap.
“That door stays locked.” It was too hard to mess with once it finally latched.
“Why?” Pike raised his eyebrow. “Any putz could pop that lock in sixty seconds.”
She flinched and eyeballed the door. “That’s not what the contractor said.”
He shrugged with a “whatever” gesture. “Locks are a specialty of mine.”
September pulled a step stool out of a cupboard to reach and open the small window. At least there was no intruder danger by leaving it open. Nobody could wiggle through but a Munchkin with wings. She shivered, stepped off and folded the stool.
Combs stared at September. “Are you okay, Ms.—”
“Oh. I’m September Day.”
Pike cocked his head. “September, like the month, and—er, Day like the—uh, day of the week?” He jabbed Combs with an elbow. “Is she kidding?”
“Yes, the name’s just like the month.” September sighed. Her parents, Rose and Lysle January, cleverly named their kids for their birthday months. Her sisters born in the spring got off easy and by the time baby brother came along in March, Mom and Dad settled for the more conventional Mark. Meanwhile, she’d been stuck with September January, no middle name needed. After 28 years she’d heard every joke possible. Chris teased her that she’d married him just to change her name. She’d joked back they should name their first child Happy. At the time, it didn’t seem important, since she had no interest in starting a family. . .
Combs frowned. “Are you sure you’re all right? You can call me Jeff.” He smiled again.
She shook off the memory and forced a smile. After all, the man had saved her house. “Jeff. Thank you. I’m fine, just pissed.” She shooed them out of the laundry room into the kitchen and followed with the step stool. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got cleanup to do.”
He had kind eyes. Brown. Like Dakota’s. She caught Pike’s amused expression before he coughed into another tissue and looked away. Wasn’t that just dandy.
“You’re one of the January girls, right?” Combs wouldn’t leave it alone. “My sister Naomi went to school with one of your sisters.”
She considered him more carefully. Officer Jeff Combs might be a couple inches shorter than Pike, but his lanky frame and loose gait offered a boyish contrast to his overweight partner. Still tan from the past summer’s sun, he had crow’s feet that advertised humor, stress, or both. Combs was at least five years older than she, maybe more. “Probably May or June?” She’d skipped a couple of grades in high school, so she was younger than most in her class.
“June, that’s right.” He nodded. “You were behind us, but then you took off before graduation on that music tour thing.” He pulled on his hat. “What brings you back to Heartland?”
She urged them to the front door. “Thanks again. Sorry, but I don’t feel real sociable at the moment.” She had come home to start fresh and get away from the ghosts that stalked her—real and imagined. She had no interest in rehashed history.
Pike pulled on heavy gloves, adjusting his hat and turtling his neck down into his collar as he duck-walked to stay vertical on the slick path back to the patrol car.
Combs paused. “Listen, Ms. Day—September. Is it okay to call you September? I wondered, you being new back in town and all—”
“Officer, uhm, Jeff. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got a phone call to make. Thanks again. You saved my bacon.” She started to close the door.
“Sure, I understand. Busy day. Maybe another time?” He handed her his card, and a twinkle lightened the shadow in his expression. “At least it’s a good day to wear hot clothes.” He turned and hurried to the car.
Despite herself, September chuckled. So Officer Combs was a wise-ass; she liked that in a person.
She shut the door, shooting the deadbolts and rattling the knob to be sure it caught. Time enough later to throw out scorched laundry. She needed to call Humphrey Fish five minutes ago, and she’d better be scintillating as hell or he’d make her pay.
September raced back to the kitchen, climbed the step stool, pried the smoke detector off the ceiling and shoved it in a drawer. She didn’t need sirens interrupting the phone call. September cut Anita off before she could say a word. “Patch me through to the studio line. I’m already late.”
“Your ass is so dead.” Anita put her on hold for ten seconds, which forced her to listen to Humphrey’s on-air introduction. She seethed at his tone.
“Why looky there, furry friends and neighbors, September just blew in. She’s finally ready to offer us the best kitty and puppy advice available. Nice of you to join us, your highness. Didja overindulge in the catnip last night?”
“Greetings and salutations your own self, Mr. Fish.” Uh oh, this would be rough. “Catnip’s not a bad idea. It’s a kitty hallucinogen and will take your cat’s mind off the nasty weather.” She hurried on before he could interrupt with another crack. “I hope all the pet parents listening out there have brought their animals indoors for the duration.”
“Hey, they’ve got fur coats, so what’s the big deal?” He laughed. “Not like some of us hair-challenged humans, right?”
She jerked the phone away from her head. He’d turned up the volume to punish her without the audience any the wiser. Two could play that game. “Scaly fish are cold blooded creatures after all.”
“Oooh, so you’re gonna be catty, are you? Pull in your claws and give us some Pet Peeves de-tails.”
“You step on my tail, I’ll hiss back, Mr. Fish.” A breath calmed and settled her into the rhythm of the show. “Even furry cats and dogs risk frostbite or hypothermia in weather like this. See, the fur helps hold body heat next to the skin to keep them toasty. Wind can strip that warmth away, and the wet keeps the fur from insulating them. Their ears, toes, tails, even the scrotum can freeze.”
“Blue balls. I love it when you talk dirty. Let’s take some calls. Hello, you’re on the air with Pet Peeves and September Day, what’s your question?”
September braced herself. God only knew what callers she’d get after that intro.
“Uh, hi, I got a wiener dog. I left him outside overnight. Now he’s a pup-sicle.” Maniacal laughter bubbled until Fish disconnected the call.
“That’s a good one. This is Humphrey Fish with September Day’s Pet Peeves. September, what do you have to say to our wiener dog fella? C’mon, I know he’s obnoxious but toss him a bone.”
She winced, but didn’t hesitate. “All jokes aside, the smaller the pet, the greater the danger. Also, y’all may end up with some hit-or-miss potty behavior as a result of the storm, because little dogs just don’t want to squat in a snowbank and get their nether regions cold.”
“We’ve got a theme going.” Fish guffawed, but it was forced.
She heard a beep-click on the line, and recognized the call-waiting signal. She checked caller ID, and rolled her eyes.
Fish broke in. “Thanks for your question. We’ve got to take a station break, but September will be right back with all the answers to your litter box woes. Keep those phone calls coming.” The music swelled and the taped commercial played. “Got you a new attitude today, do you?”
“I’ve had a hellacious morning.” September heard the beep-click again—same caller—and once more ignored it. “This won’t happen again.”
“You don’t understand. The callers love the new edginess. The phone lines lit up. They love your catty comments.”
September stared at the phone. “You’re kidding.”
“Swear to god, September. The bitchy comebacks are great. I can dish it out if you’re up for it.” He paused. “It’s great radio. Trust me. Just keep it clean. Sorta.”
“Uh, sure. Whatever you think works.” She still wasn’t convinced. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to be snide, and I’m supposed to put you down?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Now pin on your sparkly bitch pin, and turn on the wise-ass to answer that litter box question. We’re going live in five.”
A long pause filled the airspace before the Dr. Doolittle “Talk to the Animals” theme came on and faded out followed by Fish’s introduction. “We’re back with Pet Peeves. I’m Humphrey Fish trading barbs with September Day. Me-ouch.”
“Don’t get your tail in a twist.” Better start off mild. She still didn’t trust him and didn’t want to get canned.
“I resemble that remark.” Fish opened the door and waited for her comeback.
“I know you do. And I got to tell you, it’s unattractive.” The beep-click interrupted once more. September continued to ignore it.
“Oh please, September, talk dirty to me again.” Fish chortled.
She smiled. This was fun.
“Enough already with the potty talk. We need to go to the next caller.”
“Sure thing. For more information listeners can click on PetPeeves.com.” There. She got in the plug since Fish wasn’t inclined.
“Caller, you’re on the air with Humphrey Fish and Pet Peeves. What’s your question?”
Quick breaths filled the long pause. “Is September there? Please, I need to talk to her.”
“I’m here. What’s your name? And do you have a pet question?” Dang, September hoped another break came before long. She needed her own litter box after so much coffee.
“September? Oh my God, September you’ve got to help me. Please, oh no oh no—”
“Calm down, I can barely understand you. Stop crying and speak up. I’ll try to help if I can.” Forget about the bitchy delivery, this one sounded serious.
“I tried and I tried to call you but your line was busy. The babysitter fell asleep, I could just kill her.” The voice broke. “I’ve looked and looked, but he’s nowhere around the house. You’ve got to track him.”
The call waiting. “April, is that you?” She’d blown off her sister three times. September’s mouth turned to dust.
“Steven’s gone,” April cried. “My baby’s out in the storm, him and the dog both are gone!”
Shadow raced off the path and buried his face deep in the drifted snow. The mouthful stung, numbing his tongue, and finally melted. He barked with surprised delight, grinned from both ends of his body and repeated the game, grabbing and tossing doggy snowballs as fast as he could munch.
He paused, black tail still churning the air, and stared at Steven. Maybe his boy would invite him closer?
But Steven never looked back, just plodded down the tree-lined trail. His boy ignored Shadow. Like always.
Snow blurred the route, but Steven followed the twists and turns with the confidence of one who has traveled the same track hundreds of times. Almost as if he could smell-sense the right foot placement with the keen skill of Shadow’s own nose.
A new game? Just the two of them to visit the happy-place with no big humans? And no itchy vest that pushed black fur the wrong way. Shadow danced his delight. He bent double to bite the snow that settled on his back like his gnawed tattered sock.
Before they had left the house, after the old woman had fallen asleep, Steven had reached for the vest. But it hung on a hook out of his boy’s reach. So his boy hung something else around Shadow’s neck. It bounced now against Shadow’s furry chest with each paw step forward. The cord wasn’t as long as the leash. Not nearly long enough for the other end to be attached to Steven’s wrist the way they practiced. And without the connection, Shadow was free to explore each side of the path, range ahead or lag behind.
Such smells. Such sounds. The cold focused every sensation until the world turned shiny bright, clean and sharp. Each white flake landed with a quiet “thpp” that made his long ears twitch, and tingled his skin at each grazed hair. Warm furry smells, rich and pungent…creatures burrowed deep out of sight tickled and teased that deep smell-place under his eyes. More, he wanted more.
Shadow raced in a tight circle, leaped high in the air to snap a withered leaf from a tree, and then dug frantically for no reason with mutters of joy. He panted, offering a happy tongue-lolling grin.
He stopped, cocked his big head to one side, and willed his boy to look at him. The white stuff clogged the air, blurring Steven’s distant figure. Wind shifted and scent—and his boy—disappeared. Another gust blew snow so hard Shadow couldn’t see, but it also brought back the familiar comfort of Steven’s signature smell.
Shadow barked, bounded ahead three leaps, and barked again. He saw Steven flinch and cover his ears with his bare hands, but continue to stomp forward. Shadow barked again, and bent low in a butt-high bow in the most blatant invitation to play he could muster.
They could chase each other. Eat the cold white stuff. Roll around on the ground until exhausted. Shadow wiggled, barely able to contain his excitement.
But his boy never turned to see. Steven stuffed his hands back into his pockets, and trudged on.
The pup’s tail slowed. He understood. The silent message shouted louder than the mouth-noise humans used. So he stood up and shook himself hard in a doggy shrug of disappointment. It wasn’t Steven’s fault. It was a good-dog’s job to teach his boy how to have fun.
Most humans didn’t dog-talk very well. So Shadow learned to watch their faces for clues to what all the mouth-noise meant. But his boy rarely varied his expressions, rarely vocalized, and spoke a different sort of body language than the adults. That was okay, though. Shadow was multilingual.
He figured out what some of the adult’s words meant, like “food” and “outside.” But more often, the big humans confused Shadow when they said one thing with their body and another with words. He never knew which to believe.
Steven wasn’t nearly so confusing.
But his boy still carried the fear-stink from earlier. Not as bad as the boy’s mother, but nasty all the same. Outside the house the cold wind washed away his fear-smell. Shadow whimpered at the thought, his ears flattened, and he hurried after Steven. A good-dog protected his boy, even if—ESPECIALLY if—scary people threatened.
Fear-stink made Shadow’s fur stand up and feel prickly. Prickly and ready to bite. But he wasn’t supposed to bite, ever. So he hated the fear-stink.
Shadow wanted to play. At the thought, his hackles smoothed. The cold, sharp day was made for play. For jumping and running, barking and peeing and digging out nose-tickling smells.
And fetching. He liked that word. The big humans never said the fetch-word enough.
Maybe they’d play when they reached the open field, the place with the metal climb objects. The happy place. His tail wagged at the thought. They visited the happy place almost every day, sometimes with the old woman and sometimes with the boy’s mother. Shadow played, and Steven made the swings move or stacked rocks. Like his boy, Shadow appreciated routine.
With renewed anticipation Shadow raced after his boy. Maybe Steven had brought the ball—that was another word he’d learned all on his own. Shadow loved his ball; it made the best fetch game ever. Almost as much fun as to grab and shake Bear-toy to kill it. Pretend kill it, anyway.
Shadow reached his boy’s side and trotted as close as possible without contact. Good-dogs stayed close to their people, and Shadow wanted to be a good-dog almost more than life itself.
Steven reached down and caught up the short cord suspended from Shadow’s neck, mimicking the leash walk connection they’d practiced so many times. The pup showed his teeth like the big humans did when they were happy. He’d practiced and learned to copy their smile. He was sad that they didn’t have tails to show joy and sadness, to warn and welcome. Shadow wondered why they never play-bowed. So Shadow learned to show happy teeth to help humans understand dog-talk better. They liked it, too.
He liked how his breath puffed white into the air. Panted breath surrounded his head in a cereal-scented white cloud. His boy’s breath did the same thing.
From the time he’d arrived at the house, Shadow had understood his world revolved around his boy. That’s how his boy’s mother wanted it. Shadow knew she was Steven’s mother because they smelled so much alike and because she treated his boy with the same ferocious care his own protective dam had shown.
But his boy’s mother was sad a lot of the time. Even when she smiled, the sorrow crept through. It confused him. Sometimes Shadow managed to make her laugh, like when he’d tripped over Bear-toy or chased his tail. Her laugh made a wonderful swell inside his chest. When she called him “good-dog-Shadow” the day Steven pushed cereal treats off the table for him to snap out of the air, that was best of all. He thought his chest would burst with happiness.
Another lady visited him every day—the treat-lady. She taught him words and special games with rules he tried to understand. Sometimes it took a long time for Shadow to figure out what she wanted. Once he did, she made him feel so smart and happy. She called him “good-dog” more than anybody. Shadow pictured her face and wagged again. Thought of the treat-smell that clung to her clothes made him drool.
The treat-lady showed him how to understand the mouth-noises people called words. Every time he guessed right, she made a “click” sound with her mouth and fed him a treat. It didn’t take Shadow long to figure out if he was a good-dog, he could make that click-treat happen. People had pockets filled up with yummy stuff for good-dogs, and hands made for scratching a dog’s hard-to-reach places.
Steven didn’t like the click noise, though. Shadow could tell, because his boy covered his ears. Shadow wished he could cover his ears sometimes, too. The big people didn’t mind the loud-hurt noises. The scary-noises today made him squat-and-pee until it stopped. Maybe only dogs and youngsters like his boy could hear those noises.
Anyway, Shadow only got to play the click-treat game when his boy stayed in the other room. Every few days the treat-lady spent a bunch of time with him, even longer than the daily visits.
He wondered why she didn’t stay all the time. He’d like that. A lot.
The treat-lady taught him what to do when she said sit or down or wait or come. Come was the hardest. Shadow always found something that smelled or sounded so wonderful that teased him to ignore the word, so he’d only gotten come right a couple of times. The treat-lady had been so excited and happy and called him “good-dog” many times. More times than he had paws—that was a lot—so he knew he’d done it right. She gave him tummy rubs and played fetch until his tongue hung to the floor and his tail was too tired to wag. But he wagged anyway. He couldn’t help wagging when she was near.
Maybe if he got everything right all the time, the treat-lady wouldn’t ever leave him. Wouldn’t that be fine?
Lately they’d practiced with his vest. He liked to race around the big room and drag the attached leash. He made it crash into the wire crate or splash into his water bowl, pretending that it chased him. But the treat-lady frowned and shook her head when he did that. She didn’t give him any treats or smile or anything. She ignored him.
Shadow hated to be ignored. It made his tummy hurt. That’s how he knew what not to do. He was smart that way.
The first time she picked up the end of the leash, he pulled hard and wagged his tail and woofed, sure they’d have a tug game like with Teddy, his bear-toy. Yet she didn’t want him to pull, either. How confusing.
But when he stood quiet and did nothing at all as Steven clipped the leash to his vest, the treat-lady laughed and rubbed his tummy, gave him a quiet “click” and a treat, and he knew he’d done something right. Imagine that—a good-dog for doing nothing at all? For walking without pulling and standing quiet until the treat-lady said “okay” which signaled Shadow to do whatever he wanted.
He liked the “okay” word almost as much as “good-dog.”
Shadow hurried along the snowy pathway, keeping pace with Steven. He didn’t pull against the makeshift tether and surge ahead or drag behind. He knew how to play this game. He’d learned the rules.
Overhanging trees and bushes bore the brunt of the wind, but Shadow’s nose and ear tips stung with the cold. He shook his head and licked his nose to warm it, and pulled the makeshift leash out of Steven’s hand. Shadow stopped and plopped his tail into the snow and waited, just as the treat-lady had taught. His boy paused, and felt along the line of Shadow’s throat and down his chest until he was able to retrieve the line. The boy’s touch thrilled the pup and made his tummy leap with happiness.
Shadow didn’t know why his boy never gave him tummy rubs, and didn’t like to play. But he figured out it was a good-dog’s job to teach his boy how to give tummy rubs and to play chase and fetch and all the other stuff that made life an adventure for human-pups and dog-pups alike.
Treat-lady hadn’t said so. Shadow figured that out all by himself. He was smart that way.
The pup wagged faster when they came out from under the trees into the open playground. He nudged his boy’s side with his muzzle. Was the ball in one of his pockets? He detected something hard, not a ball, with the acrid odor of the scary “POP-POP-POP” from the morning. Shadow wrinkled his nose.
Steven shuffled to the gate, fiddled with the latch, and entered. He dropped Shadow’s neck cord so the heavy end nestled into black fur. Nothing new here—his boy always let go once they arrived so Shadow could play and “take-a-break.” He’d learned that meant he should squat. Only after that was he allowed to play.
But either Steven’s mother or the old woman had always accompanied them before. The pup’s large pointed ears drooped and he whined. Being alone with his boy made him nervous.
The old woman helped take care of his boy. She smelled of dusty powder and bacon, and made him sneeze and drool at the same time. Her loud voice hurt Steven’s ears sometimes, but the pup knew she meant no harm. He liked her well enough, but would like her better if she shared the bacon.
Steven made a beeline for the playground equipment and didn’t shut the gate. Shadow’s unease deepened. His boy always opened it and the old woman always shut it. The gaped door looked wrong. But Shadow stepped through and slowly followed his boy anyway. Change to his routine, or to his boy’s routine was bad, scary. Deep vertical lines furrowed his brow. Shadow searched the empty playground for the old woman. Maybe she woke up from the sofa and would meet them here?
Steven trudged to the snow-filled canvas slings hung from chains that clanked in the breeze. He brushed one clear and twisted the long chains around and around. Once wound tight, he let go, watching without expression. The swing twirled, unwinding in the wind. He stared until it stopped, and again twisted the chains.
Shadow cocked his head for a moment and was comforted by the familiar game his boy played. Being alone with his boy was a new game, he decided. He needed to learn the rules. He shook himself and immediately felt better.
The pup trotted through the field to the farthest point inside the fence, and squatted without anyone to tell him to take-a-break. He told himself, “good-dog” but it wasn’t the same.
After an hour of doggy play and swing twirling, Shadow rejoined his boy’s side, like always. It was time. They always stayed just this long.
Steven held his neck cord like they always did. And they left through the street-side gate like they always did and walked two blocks to where his boy’s mother or the old woman always waited to drive them home. Shadow’s tail wagged at thought of the toasty warm car ride to come. The cold bit his nose, and he flinched and squinted into the wind. Steven stumbled, braced an arm against Shadow’s back to catch himself—and left his hand there. Shadow adjusted his pace to his boy’s.
Within minutes, the wind and snow had swept away all evidence they ever entered the playground at all.
Amy Shojai, CABC is a nationally known pet authority and the award-winning author of 35+ nonfiction dog and cat care titles, as well as Thrillers With Bite. She credits the ITW Debut Author program with launching her September & Shadow pet-centric thriller series, set in her North Texas home. Rose gardening, stained glass projects, theatre performances, and nonstop reading fill her so-called spare time, while her furry muses, past and present, inspire her work and often share her pillow. She is the Vice President of North Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Dog Writers Association of America, an Honorary Life Member of Oklahoma Writers Federation, and a founder of the international Cat Writers’ Association. Oh, and she loves sparkles and wears her rhinestone “#1-Bitch” pin as a badge of honor. Learn more at https://www.SHOJAI.com