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Authors: Norah McClintock

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BOOK: Last Chance
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Rule number one: Always assume that a dog that doesn't know you may view you as an intruder or a threat. Especially assume this if the dog is growling at you and if the dog's tail is not, repeat
not
, wagging.

Rule number two: Never turn your back to a dog and run away. A dog's natural instinct is to chase you and catch you—and then treat you like a chew toy.

Rule number three: If you are approached by a dog that you think might attack you (for example, a massive ebony beast with dead-looking eyes and a mouthful of teeth that scream, “Born to bite”), remain motionless with your hands at your sides and avoid eye contact with the dog. After the dog loses interest in you (which you pray it will), slowly back away until it is out of sight. Try to hide your fear.

Rule number four: If the dog attacks, feed it your jacket, your purse, your bicycle (the book I read actually said this—your bicycle!), or anything else that you can put between you and the dog.

And finally, rule number five: If you fall or are knocked to the ground, curl into a ball with your hands over your ears. Do
not
move. Do
not
scream. Do
not
roll around. Apparently, this will only encourage the dog to attack.

So there I was, standing in front of an animal shelter that should (theoretically) have been filled with people who not only love animals but who also know exactly how to handle them. Apparently none of those people happened to be looking out a window. None of them saw me. None of them came to my rescue.

The dog stood in front of me, blocking my way and growling. I fought the urge to call (scream) for help and stood motionless, per rule number three. My hands hung at my sides. They were also motionless. I didn't want the dog to mistake my fingers for juicy, beckoning sausages. I stared at the ground because, apparently, locking eyes with an aggressive dog is the canine version of slapping an adversary across the face with a glove—the dog thinks you're challenging it to a duel.

I waited for the dog to lose interest in me.

It didn't.

I stood there, barely breathing. I tried to block out murderous thoughts about Billy and his peaceful protest and instead tried to get into the moment, into the Zen, of being a statue.
I am granite,
I told myself.
I cannot move. I will not move. And if I am bitten, I will not bleed. I will feel no pain. Because I am granite.

The dog made a sound that some people might describe as barking, but barking didn't begin to capture it. This wasn't
arf-arf
or
bow-wow
. This was the sound of thunder being channeled through a canine throat. I jumped. Then I immediately thought:
stupid, stupid, stupid! You know the rules. You should not have moved.

The dog knew the rules too. When I jumped, he charged.

A single thought flashed through my brain like a comet in a midnight sky:
Run.

Run now.

Run fast.

Then I thought about that brute chasing me, and catching me, and I stayed put.

I tried not to look at the dog.

I tried not to panic.

And then a miracle happened.

The dog aborted its charge less than a couple feet away.

Maybe the rules really worked?

Then someone shouted: “Orion!”

Finally. A human being.
A rescuer.

“Orion! Come!”

The dog stopped growling and turned its head to look at the person who had called his name—a teenage boy who looked like the human equivalent of the animal in front of me. His hair was as black as the dog's coat. A hairline scar cut diagonally across his right cheek, from close to the top of his nose to close to the bottom of his ear. Despite the intense heat of the afternoon, he was wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black boots that would have been happy nestled on the footrests of a motorcycle. The dog looked at the boy, but it didn't back off. On the plus side, it didn't come any closer to me. Instead, it stood its ground until the boy came over and snapped a leash onto its collar. A chain leash, I noticed. The kind a dog couldn't chew through.

Now that the dog was restrained, I took a good long look at it. It was 50 percent teeth and 100 percent muscle, and it was straining so hard on the leash that the boy's biceps bulged as he held it. I hoped that the boy was as strong as he looked.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “He got away from me.”

“No problem,” I said, my voice trembling. No problem?
Big
problem. If this boy was responsible for the dog, he shouldn't have let it get away from him. On the other hand, he sounded genuinely apologetic and, despite his all-black wardrobe, he was kind of hot. His eyes were an amazing shade of blue that verged on purple. I had only ever seen eyes like that once before and that was back when nothing about boys interested me, including their eyes. “Is he your dog?” I asked.

The boy shook his head. “He lives here,” he said, nodding at the shelter. “But don't worry, he wouldn't have bitten you. Orion looks way scarier than he actually is.”

I glanced at the dog again and was
not
comforted.

The boy scratched the dog behind one ear. The dog bowed its head to expose more head-scratching surface. The boy smiled. The dog dropped its butt to the ground. Then it crouched and rolled over, begging for more. The boy obliged. While I watched the two of them, I got a strange feeling, as if something about this was familiar. The boy straightened up and looked at me again. He frowned.

“Is something wrong?” I said.

He shook his head.

“Do you work here?”

The question seemed to startle him, but he looked pleased. “No,” he said.

“So you're a volunteer?”

His smile faded. “Not exactly.” He thought a moment. “Well, sometimes.”

Not exactly? What did that mean? And
sometimes,
but not
now?
And why was I getting a weird déjà-vu feeling when I looked at him?

“I'm Nick,” he said.

The feeling became overpowering. Now I was almost positive I knew him, but I couldn't figure out how. He didn't seem like the kind of guy I'd forget.

“Hey,” someone called. We both turned. A stocky guy with brush-cut hair, wearing relaxed-fit jeans and a collared knit shirt, was standing at one corner of the building. “D'Angelo, get a move on. You're holding us up!”

D'Angelo?
Nick D'Angelo?
I peered at him as he turned toward the man. Then it hit me like a kick to the stomach.

What was the worst that could happen, my father had asked.

I had been here for all of five minutes, and so far I had made the journey from bad to worse.

Next stop . . .

N
ick D'Angelo frowned at me again. “Do I know you?” he said

“Uh, no, I don't think so,” I said. “This is my first day.”

“Hey, D'Angelo!” the man called again, making the name sound like a command.

Nick took a last look at me before saying, “Heel.” As I watched him and the dog disappear around the side of the building, I thought,
Why me?
Better yet: Why him? Of all the people from my past, why, oh why, did I have to run into Nick D'Angelo? What was he even doing here? He didn't work here, but he said he wasn't
exactly
a volunteer either. Maybe he was like me, a “voluntold”—told by someone else that he
had
to volunteer. Given what I knew about him, that was a real possibility.

I glanced at my watch. Five minutes late—on my first day. I hurried through the main door of the animal shelter and approached the reception desk.

The woman sitting behind the desk smiled up at me.

“I'm here to see Kathy Lennox,” I said.

The woman asked me my name and told me to take a seat. A moment later, another woman bustled into the reception area. She was small and dressed casually in light summer pants and a cotton blouse.

“Robyn?” she said, flashing me a sunny smile and thrusting out a hand. “I'm Kathy.” We shook hands. She introduced me to Cindy, the receptionist, and then she said, “Let me give you the five-minute tour before I show you what you're going to be doing here.”

I followed her around the sprawling building, which was a maze of corners and corridors. Kathy introduced me to a lot of people whose names I promptly forgot.

“Don't worry,” Kathy said. “After a couple of days, you'll have everyone sorted out.”

She led me to a door that opened to a long corridor. On the floor near the door was a basin of what looked like water with a hemp doormat in it. A wet towel lay on the floor beside the basin.

“We had a viral outbreak here a few weeks ago,” Kathy said. She stepped into the basin and squished up and down on the mat. “This is bleach. Anyone going into and out of any of the animal areas has to disinfect the soles of their shoes. We think we've got it under control, but we're going to be careful for another few days.” She stepped out of the basin and stood aside for me. I squished up and down and understood why I had been instructed to wear old shoes.

As we walked past another hall, Kathy pointed and said, “That's the animal clinic down there.” We passed a store that sold pet food and pet equipment; a large laundry room filled with washing machines, clothes dryers, and shelves piled high with towels; and, finally, a kitchen where the animals' meals were prepared. All of these areas were bustling with activity. I had never been in an animal shelter before. I had never considered all the things that went into making sure that animals were healthy, clean, and properly fed.

We turned a corner and Kathy pushed open a door.

“This used to be an office,” she said. Stacks of metal cages filled most of the room. Each cage contained either a kitten or a cat. “We have three times more animals in here right now than we're really equipped for,” Kathy said. “A lot of them are cats.”

And a lot of them weren't. I peeked into another used-to-be-an-office and saw rabbits, mice, a white rat and, in a fenced-in enclosure under a window, an enormous white . . .

“Is that a duck?” I said.

“Two ducks,” Kathy said, pointing to a second duck that I hadn't noticed squatting in one corner of the enclosure.

“Do you get a lot of them?” I said.

She sighed. “We get everything. If an animal has been mistreated or abandoned and if someone brings it in or reports it, we take it. If it's sick, we treat it. We treat an animal twice for whatever is wrong with it. If it doesn't recover . . .” She shrugged, a slow, sad roll of her shoulders. “We have so many cats because people don't get them spayed or neutered. We have rabbits because people get them for their kids at Easter or buy them when they're cute little bunnies. They don't realize how big they get or how much care they need.”

“Will they all get adopted?” I said.

This earned me another slow shrug. “We do pretty well with cats and kittens,” she said. “Dogs, too. But adult rabbits?” She left the question unanswered.

When we reached the end of the corridor, she pushed open a door that led outside. We walked along a path to the other part of the building, immersed the soles of our shoes in another basin of bleach, and entered what Kathy called the original animal wing. The minute Kathy pushed open the door, we were assailed with barking.

Dogs.

Two whole corridors filled with them. They were housed in kennels—fairly large enclosures with chain-link doors and ceiling-high dividers between them. Each kennel contained one dog, one bowl of water, and one blanket for the dog to lie on. Like the rest of the shelter, the kennels were spotless. They held every type of dog imaginable—cocker spaniels, collies, German shepherds . . .

“That's a pig,” I said, surprised. At least, it looked like a pig.

Kathy nodded, “A pot-bellied pig,” she said. “They were popular a few years ago.”

It was no mystery how the animal had got its name. The stout, black-haired creature looked like a small barrel on legs. Its head was deep into its food dish and—

“It's wagging its tail,” I said. “Just like a dog.”

I tiptoed closer to get a better look—and leaped back again when the dogs on either side of the pig hurled themselves at the chain-link gates of their kennels, barking. I looked at Kathy and then back at the two dogs. Both were a tawny brown color and had strong, muscular bodies. They could have been twins.

“Are those—?”

“Pit bulls,” Kathy said.

My heart jackhammered in my chest. I made a noteto-self: take the long way around this room. Better yet: stay in the office part of the shelter.

We continued on through the building. Kathy hadn't been kidding about how many felines called the shelter their (temporary) home. A lot of the cat cages had cards taped to them that said, “Adopted.” I had seen some of those cards in the dog area, but a lot more dog kennels had signs posted to them that said, “Not ready for adoption.”

BOOK: Last Chance
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