Authors: Dayna Lorentz
Shep wagged his tail and sniffed at his leash on the table. “I'm ready to Go,” he whimpered.
“Sorry, Shep.” The boy tousled Shep's fur, then picked up his bag. “No dogs allowed.” He followed the woman out of the den.
The door closed and Shep heard a click. He stood near the door and listened to the footsteps of his humans. He heard their steps echo in the stairwell, then nothing. They had left him.
TO MY PACKMATES
PETER, KERRY & OSCAR
The lights over Shep were the lights of the fight cage, a white glare that blinded him if he looked up from the battle. In front of him were yellowed fangs, slashing claws, savage black eyes. This was no mere fight dog: Shep was fighting the Black Dog himself. The scents â of slobber, of lifeblood, of the Black Dog's wrath â were overwhelming. Shep tried to block the blows of the Black Dog, but he couldn't lift his legs. His paws were like stones. The men around him hollered; the other fight dogs yelped and growled in fear. Then the sand of the floor began to suck Shep down. He struggled against the pull of the sand and snapped his jaws at the Black Dog's snout.
A kind voice broke into Shep's suffering. He felt a hand stroke his fur. The nightmare scene vanished.
Shep opened his eyes and saw his boy kneeling before him. The boy smiled and patted Shep's head. He said something in a soothing voice. The glow of the small wall-light dimly lit the boy's face. Shep raised his head and licked the boy's cheek to reassure him. The boy seemed comforted and retreated to his bed. Shep rose and followed, making sure that his boy was safe under the covers.
“Good night, Shep.”
Good night, Boy
, Shep thought. He liked the name the boy had given him: German Shepherd, shortened to Shep. Many moons ago, in the fight kennel, he'd been just another young pup. There were only young pups and old timers in the kennel; no fight dog ever wished to know more about a potential opponent, and there were no boys to give them names or take them home at night.
Shep returned to his bed on the floor by the wall-light. He pawed at the stuffing, breaking up a lumpy section. Then he stepped into the bed, circled around a few times, and finally curled his rump under him and flopped onto his chest. His fluffy black tail tickled his nose, so he shifted his long black muzzle to the other side of his paws.
By the smell of it, there were still many heartbeats before the tails of dawn wagged in the sky. To fall back asleep was to relive the past, and Shep did not want to see that place again. He dragged a toy out from under a box and gnawed on it to stay awake.
Every night, Shep closed his eyes and hoped that the nightmare of the fight cage had been washed from his memory. But sure as the moon shined, the grisly dreams invaded his slumber and the stale stench of the Black Dog, that raging specter, filled his nose, choking him. The scars in his memory were as permanent as the scars on his snout.
But that was all in the past. For twelve moons, nearly a cycle, Shep had lived in a good den with a kind boy and his kin, a tall man with a furry face and a plump woman with long, silky black hair. The boy, lanky with shaggy brown hair, was Shep's favorite. He was the one who rolled around on the rug with Shep, tugging on a rope toy. The boy was the one who took Shep to the Park every morning and played fetch with the yellow Ball. The man and the woman were nice enough, but Shep loved the boy best.
The boy twitched in his sleep and made a soft groaning noise, then snored on. Shep nibbled an itch on one of his front paws, licked the fur to straighten any wayward brown hairs, and laid his head down. He was far from the fight cage, and he was happy.
The morning sunlight glinted off the buildings outside the room's window. Shep was hungry. He crept over to the boy's bed and, in a single spring, was on top of the boy and licking his face. The boy laughed as he fought off Shep's gentle attack.
“Okay, okay,” he said, shoving Shep's snout playfully. Then he said something about the Park.
His hunger forgotten, Shep jumped down from the bed. The boy yawned, his ripe breath smelling of happy dreams, and crossed the hall into the Bath room.
Shep followed the boy and stuck his snout in the door. “Let's Go to the Park now!”
“No dogs allowed,” the boy said, playfully swatting Shep's nose before closing the door behind him.
Shep listened to the water rush and gurgle, knowing that it would only be a few more heartbeats of waiting until the boy appeared. The door whined, and the boy was before him. Shep stood and wagged his tail. “Can we Go to the Park now?” he yipped.
The boy slapped his thighs. “Let's Go!” he cried, and ran down the hall toward the den's entry.
Shep sprang after him, catching the boy just as he rounded the corner. “I got you!” Shep barked, pawing at the boy's chest. He clawed the boy's shoulders trying to lick his face, which reeked of mint.
Laughing, the boy stumbled into a table. The woman stepped out of the food room, face scrunched. She scolded the boy, but then she smiled, so Shep knew every thing was all right. He wagged his tail at her to wish her a good morning. She gave Shep a quick scratch behind the ears.
“Come on, Shep,” the boy said. He lifted the leash from its hook.
Shep was instantly pressed against the boy's thigh, nose to the door. The boy clipped the leash onto Shep's collar and led Shep out of the den, into the hallway, and down the steps.
Outside, the usual scents and sounds of the city surrounded Shep â the honk and stink of the Cars, the whistle of wind between the buildings, the tar smell of the street. But there was something else, a vibration in his whiskers and a new scent. The air was heavy with water, the breeze swirled, and energy crackled through the sky â all far away.
The boy tugged on the leash. Shep pushed the strange smell from his mind. It was a distant scent, the sky above was clear, and he was so close to the Park.
Shep and his boy bounded down the Sidewalk. Though Shep preferred roaming the whole of the street (sniffing the gutters, chasing the Cars), the boy always tugged the leash tight, forcing Shep to remain on the crowded raised stone way next to the buildings, or “Sidewalk,” as the boy repeatedly commanded.
When the boy stopped across the street from the Park, Shep strained against the leash. The smells of moist dirt and rustling leaves, the wet sparkle of the water in the pond, and the dogs â so many dogs! â all pricked at Shep's nostrils. The roadway was crowded with the humans' growling, smoke-belching Cars. Shep barked at them to get out of the way.
“I have to get to the Park!” he cried.
The boy suddenly loosened the leash and they ran across the street, into the Park, and to the fenced-in area where the other dogs scampered on the grass. Shep pressed his nose to the fence and, once the boy lifted the latch, shoved open the gate.
“Run, Shep!” the boy shouted.
Shep felt the leash fall from his collar. He burst forward, springing off his hind legs. As he ran, the gusty wind ruffled his fur. His tongue lolled from his open mouth and his paws pounded the dirt.
The fenced-in part of the Park was not large. There were open stretches of grass, some trees and bushes, a bench here and there, a water hose which made terrific mud pools, and, in the center, an arrangement of obstacles â a tunnel, a platform, lines of sticks thrusting up from the earth. Shep circled around it like a flash of brown fur and returned to his boy. The boy held up the yellow Ball and Shep leapt for it.
“Sit!” the boy commanded.
Shep sat, his heart racing. He panted hard, but kept still, waiting for what he knew came next. The boy swung back his arm and threw the Ball. It flew in a high arc against the sky.
“Go get it!” the boy shouted.
Shep sprinted after the Ball, his claws flinging dirt behind him as he ran. He followed the yellow dot as it fell, his eyes flicking from Ball to grass to Ball again. At just the right heartbeat, when the Ball was only two stretches from the ground, Shep turned and sprang into the air. He clenched his teeth around the yellow fuzz of the Ball and landed on his paws.
“Another perfect catch!” Shep growled happily through clenched jaws. He trotted back to his boy and dropped the Ball at his feet.
The boy threw the Ball again and again.
This is what a dog's life should be
, Shep thought as he raced after the Ball for a fifth time.
Nothing but sky above and the wind in your fur and grass under your paws and a boy to play with.
After a few more chases, Shep could tell that his boy was getting tired of the game. The boy's arms drooped and his throws were weak. When the boy tossed the Ball a short distance away in the grass, Shep trotted past it toward the fence. His boy relaxed his shoulders and turned to talk to another boy. Shep whimpered softly, sad to see the game end. But he wanted his boy to enjoy the morning, too.
Shep sniffed along the fence's edge to see if he knew any of the other dogs in the Park. A tall dog with a mottled brown coat bounded toward him.
“Zeus!” Shep yowled, happy to see his friend.
Zeus's pointy, cropped ears stood off his head like furry horns, and his eyes smiled beneath a proud jutting brow. He reared on his hind legs, boxing at Shep playfully with his front paws. Shep leapt up, pawing at his friend's broad white chest and nipping lightly at his jowls.
Zeus dropped onto the dirt and raised his rump in the air. He wagged his stub of a tail and gave a few quick barks. “Catch me!” he cried, then burst away across the Park.
Shep growled and took off after Zeus. He caught up with him and nipped at his flank. Zeus spun around, catching Shep's ruff lightly in his teeth, and the two rolled in the dust. They kicked at each other's bellies, open mouths gnawing at the other's neck, and growled happily.
Shep thrust his hind legs into Zeus's belly, then sprang onto his paws.
“You're too slow this morning!” Shep barked. He dug his front claws into the grass and charged through a hedge.
Zeus growled and in one twisting leap was on his paws and racing after Shep.
Shep veered around a tree and headed for the obstacle course. He ducked his head and scrambled through the tunnel. Just as he emerged, Zeus pounced from above and brought Shep down into the dirt.
Shep struggled to his paws. He looked back at the tunnel. “How'd you do that?” he asked, shaking the dust from his coat.
Zeus cocked his head toward the climbing platform. “Up the ramp, and then off the platform, and onto your head.”
Shep was impressed. “Good move,” he snarled.
“Well, you're older, so you have an excuse,” Zeus yipped jokingly.
“Older, but wiser,” Shep barked. He snapped at Zeus's stub tail, then raced off across the field. Zeus howled and took off after Shep.
Other dogs â a brown, short-haired hunting dog, a shaggy golden retriever, a black-and-white mutt â tried to break into their play, chasing first Zeus, then Shep, but the two friends ignored them. Zeus was like Shep's kin, the littermate he'd never known. When they played, Shep sensed Zeus's movements as if they were his own. He knew how far they could take a scuffle without turning it into a fight.
Several more rounds and both Shep and Zeus were panting hard. They decided to take a break to catch their breath and trotted to the shade of a tree. Some of the other dogs continued the chase, the black-and-white mutt in the lead, then the brown dog. Zeus sat beside Shep, tongue lolling between his jaws.
“This is the life, isn't it?” yipped Shep. He could imagine nothing more perfect than this morning: his boy nearby, his friend beside him, winds rustling the palm fronds above.
“It's okay,” Zeus grunted, sniffing his hind flank, then nibbling at an itch.
Shep asked, surprised by his friend's indifference. “What could be better than this?”
Zeus looked around, his gaze stopping at nothing, taking every thing in with equal disdain. “I'm not sure,” he said finally. “But there has to be something better than this. Don't you get bored sometimes, chasing that Ball, eating that dry kibble?”
Shep closed his eyes and recalled the horrible excitement of the fight kennels â claws rattling metal cages, endless barking and howling, raw meat thrown into the battle to intensify the fighters' fury.
“Sometimes boring is good,” Shep woofed quietly.
A stout, black, smush-snouted little dog with tall, winglike ears â nearly as big as Shep's own â pranced over to where Zeus and Shep sat. He growled and then barked at them. “Think you're so big!” he yowled. “I can take you! Both of you!” He pounced on the dirt, front legs stiff and chest puffed. “Come on! You scared?”
Zeus looked at Shep, and they both burst out panting. They stood and walked away from the snorty thing.
“They're not even dogs, those little yappers,” Zeus said, a wide grin on his jowls.
Shep panted and glanced back at the tree. The black yapper glowered, his tiny jaw clenched and fat chest thrust forward. He lifted his stumpy leg and marked the tree.
“It's mine now!” the yapper barked, kicking with his hind legs and sending up a spray of dust. “From now on you'll have to fight me to sit here!”
“Great Wolf!” Shep yipped, rolling his eyes. This squat yapper was ridiculous. Normally, the little dogs stayed in one corner of the Park, a separate, smaller section fenced off for the midget mongrels. Most little dogs knew their place, and that it wasn't with the big dogs. What was this crazy yapper thinking, trying to play with the real dogs?
Zeus barked that he wanted to rejoin the chase and bounded after the passing pack. Just as Shep was about to follow, he heard a growl behind him.
“You look worthy.”
A large black girldog with a shock of brown fur over each of her sharp eyes padded toward him. She held her curved tail high and her stance was proud. She carried no human scent â she smelled of slobber and tar and scavenged meat. Shep could see the Black Dog smiling from behind this girldog's brown eyes.
“Wild dogs aren't allowed in the Park,” Shep growled, his hackles raised.
The girldog cocked her head. “Are you going to make me leave?” she snarled.
“If I have to,” Shep replied coolly.
The girldog snickered, then sprang at Shep. Her attack was ferocious, and her teeth snapped savagely. She caught Shep's ear with her fangs.