Authors: Dandi Daley Mackall
Tags: #JUVENILE FICTION / Religious / Christian
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Copyright © 2008 by Dandi Daley Mackall. All rights reserved.
Cover photo of dog copyright © by Robert Pearcy/Animalsanimals
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Cover photo of horse copyright © by Cynthia Baldauf/iStockphoto. All rights reserved
Author photo copyright © 2006 by John Maurer of Maurer Photography Studio. All rights reserved.
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Edited by Stephanie Voiland
Scripture quotations are taken from the
, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
and to all those pets you put up with over the years. Thanks!
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander. . . . Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
If the world had any idea how mad I, Wesley “Mad Dog” Williams, am at it, the sun would be too scared to show its ugly face around here.
I squint up at the giant burning ball of fire that’s making me sweat through my T-shirt. Nothing to do but hustle up the frying-hot sidewalk and take the steps two at a time. I have to pass under the big sign I’ve walked under dozens of times. It still gets to me. Black letters over the door read, “Nice Animal Shelter.”
This place is no shelter. And there’s not an animal in there feeling nice.
The problem is, the whole town is named “Nice.” A great place to live if you like ice-cream socials and community picnics.
I don’t. But I’m not living in Nice forever. Not even close.
As soon as my mom gets out of rehab, I’m moving back to Chicago, getting a job in the city, and finding an apartment with a little backyard for Rex, my dog. And I’m going to train a dog for Mom so she can have one of man’s best friends all to herself.
Nice, Illinois, is about the last place anybody from my old crew in Chicago would expect to find me. That’s for sure. Nobody in Nice calls me Mad Dog. But Mad Dog is still how I think of myself. The handle fits, even in Nice. Maybe
I glance up again at the Nice Animal Shelter sign. Some joke. I’ve seen my fair share of ugly in my 14 years on this planet, but I’ve never seen nothing uglier than a dog pound. And that’s what this is, no matter how you call it. It’s a dog pound. Pounds are like death row for the innocent, without trials.
I take a deep breath, yank the door open, and walk in. A blast of cold air hits me. You can bet the “Nice” animals don’t have air-conditioning in back. Even out here in the lobby, with crisp, cool air blowing through like March winds, it smells like rotten cat food and ammonia.
“May I help you?” asks a blonde I’ve never seen before. Her skin is so white I can’t believe she’s ever seen the sun. Not this month anyway. Not August in Illinois. I’ve seen snow less white than this girl.
I figure she must be new, maybe a temp. Everybody who is anybody gets out of town in August.
My mom used to talk about taking a vacation to Florida. That was back when I was young enough to think Disney World was cool and the Mouse was real.
“Dog warden in?” I ask, walking up to the big desk in the center of the lobby.
“He’s out all week on vacation,” she answers. “Would you like to fill out an application to adopt a pet?” She holds up a one-page application I’ve filled out a couple dozen times before.
“I’m on file.” I hear my own voice like it’s someone else’s. The words come out sharp as blades and cold as hailstones. I tell myself that I’ve got nothing against this girl. I’m just angry at the people who let their animals end up in a place like this.
The girl looks worried, though. I’m not big, but I
black. A definite minority in Nice.
be the minority in my old neighborhood, the projects on the south side of Chicago.
Anyway, I know there’s no hint of friendly on my face. So chances are I’d be making this big-smile cheerleader nervous, no matter what color I was.
“Why don’t you have a seat over there and fill out the application?” The girl holds out the paper again. “It should only take you a few minutes.” Her smile is back. “We have a full load of pets to choose from today.”
Somehow, knowing that death row is full doesn’t make me feel like smiling.
Before I can tell her this, the skinny woman who runs the pound on Thursdays comes in through the silver double doors behind the desk.
With her come the cries and barks of strays caged and waiting for their fate. Tomorrow, Friday, is execution day at the pound. They call it “putting them to sleep” or “euthanasia” or “putting them down” or just “taking care of it.”
The skinny woman is wearing a gray uniform that makes her look like a mail carrier. Her name’s Wanda, unless she always wears somebody else’s uniform.
is written in yellow letters on her front pocket.
“It’s you again, huh?” She says this without smiling, and I like that. At least she’s not a fake.
Wanda turns to the receptionist. “Wes is okay. You can always let him come through. We keep applications on file for him. He works with the Coolidges on their farm. You know. That animal rescue outside of town. Starlight Animal Rescue.”
?” the blonde girl says.
“Yeah.” She seems so blown away by this news that I’m tempted to tell her I don’t just work there. I live there. But she probably couldn’t handle that.
“Do you know Hank Coolidge?” She’s wide-eyed and just short of panting.
Hank is my 16-year-old . . . what? Foster brother, I guess. He’s the only real son of the people I live with, the Coolidges. Right now there are four of us—three fosters and Hank.
Every girl in Nice seems to have a crush on Hank. I don’t get it, but there it is.
“I know him,” I admit finally.
“Will you tell him Lissa says hi?” she asks. She makes me think of a collie puppy I found a home for a few months ago. Way too eager, but most people go for that.
Instead of giving her the promise that I’ll be her messenger boy, I turn back to Wanda.
Wanda gets it, I think. She heads back to the silver doors and nods for me to follow.
The dogs hear us coming and start yapping and barking. Canine SOS calls drown out all other sounds except the banging of wire cages.
“So how’s it going, Wes?” Wanda shouts over the howls.
This Wanda character is okay. But I’m not about to let her all up in my business. Or anybody else neither. A “how’s it going?” from anybody always gets an “I’m all right” from me.
Still, for a second, I think about answering that question for real:
How am I? Well, my mom’s still in rehab. I haven’t seen her since February, haven’t talked to her in three months, two weeks, four days—but who’s counting? I don’t know if I can wait nine more days to see her in person. That’s when she’ll walk out of that rehab place. I had to leave the only home I ever knew in Chicago, and now I’m in foster care, living on a farm with a local teen idol named Hank and two foster girls, one with cancer and the other with attitude. The only place I hang out is this pound, where they kill most of the animals I can’t take with me. So how am I? You figure it out.
“I’m all right,” I answer.
The stench of the pound back here is so strong I can feel it on my skin. It makes me want to take a long, hot shower.
“What’s up with this one?” I ask, pointing to a medium-size, white, short-haired mutt with a rat’s tail. She’s curled in the far corner of her filthy cage.
Wanda’s a head taller than me. I have to stand on tiptoes so I can see the dogs in the top row of metal cages. The dog I’m pointing to hasn’t moved since we got back here. But her eyes are sharp. She hasn’t missed a move I’ve made since I walked into this pit.
“That quiet one? Not sure,” Wanda answers. “We thought she was sick when she came in. I kept her quarantined for 48 hours. But there’s nothing physically wrong with her. She got scooped up in a canvass across the tracks, up north.”
“Terrier mix?” I guess. I’m also guessing the dog’s smart and maybe four years old.
Wanda sighs, and it makes me think she really does care about the dogs they catch. Maybe. “I was hoping the owner would come for this one,” she says. “She’s so pathetic. I showed her to four people looking for a pet, but they wanted playful.”
“Did they wind up with puppies?” I ask. It’s what most people want. Everybody thinks they can do a better job raising things than somebody else did. They don’t even think about what’s best for the dogs. They only think about themselves.
“Exactly,” Wanda answers.
I move down the row of cages because I have to. I have to keep moving. If I don’t, I think I might kick something. Anything. It just makes me crazy that people do this to animals. To dogs that never hurt anybody.
I wish I could take all of them with me. Set every dog free, like in one of those cartoon movies.
But I learned a long time ago—life is no funny cartoon movie.
Since I can’t free every dog at this pound, all I can do is rescue as many dogs as I can. I have to pick the ones I know I can train and then adopt out. Hank does the same thing with horses, and now Dakota, the newest foster, helps him.
Kat, the youngest foster, tames cats. One time she pulled a sack full of kittens from the pond because she heard them crying. Nobody else heard them. Just Kat. Somebody must have dropped those scrawny kittens into the water to drown them right before Kat walked by. She nursed every last kitten back to health and found homes for them too. That’s what goes on at Starlight Animal Rescue. I admit that if you’ve got to be in foster care, the Rescue is about as good as it gets.
Anyway, I need likable family dogs people will want in their homes, with their kids. It’s not that hard to figure out some of these strays would never make it in anybody’s home.
One ratty, dirt-brown dog that’s as big as me lunges at the cage when Wanda strolls by. I shuffle closer for a better look, and the dog glares at me with beady brown eyes. Then she breaks into barking, showing off long, sharp teeth made for biting.
A couple of the other dogs bare teeth to the gums when I get too close to their cages.
One dog looks friendly enough. Her tail wags every time I walk by. But she’s ugly as sin, like a boxer or bulldog that got left in the dryer too long. I know from experience she’d be hard to place with a mug like that.
In the corner cage on the bottom row, a black and tan short-haired mix with long, floppy ears is playing with a scrap of paper, the only “toy” in his cage. It reminds me of when I lived with my mom in a room above the bar. My favorite toys were bottle caps she’d bring home from beers she and her friends had drained. I used to make forts and trucks out of those things.
“Beagle-Lab mix, maybe?” I guess. The dog’s skeleton-skinny, so it’s hard to tell the age, but I’d guess about six months old.
Wanda shrugs. “The warden said the dog’s owner claimed he had no idea how the four dogs and six cats we found starving in his basement got there.”
“Did they arrest the guy?” This junk goes on all the time, and people go right on like nothing ever happened. Like,
Big deal—they’re only animals, right?
Wanda raises her eyebrows. “Arrest him? I doubt it.”
“Right.” My mind fills with pictures of what I’d like to do to that guy if I ever run into him—and those pictures are rated R for violence. It makes my head buzz, and I feel a major headache coming on. I whip off my ball cap and wipe sweat from my forehead. There’s definitely no air-conditioning back here.
A long-haired runt that could be a full-blooded Pomeranian pants in one of the center cages. His tongue is as long as his pointy ears. He risks a few sideways glances at me. No stare-downs from this little guy. His tail hasn’t stopped wagging since we got here. He’s alert, ears pricked and pointed straight at me. His lopsided grin invites me to come closer. Everything about this dog says he’s friendly.
“How long has
been here?” I can’t figure out why nobody’s taken this dog home.
“Came in last Tuesday,” Wanda answers.
“How come nobody grabbed him up?”
But right then the Pom struggles to stand, and I have my answer. He’s three-legged. The fourth leg, the back left, hasn’t even been cut off clean. Part of it dangles at his side like a gnarled hot dog.
“Two families thought hard about adopting the Pom, but the hanging leg was a turnoff,” Wanda explains.
I feel sick to my stomach, the way I do, sooner or later, every time I come to the pound. I tell myself what I always tell myself:
Life’s tough, Mad Dog. Don’t let it get inside you.
Pacing the rows of cages one more time, I pass the beagle-Lab mix. He rolls over on his side, then keeps rolling onto his back, legs curled in the air, ribs sticking out.
And he’s got me. “I’ll take the Blab.”
“The what?” Wanda asks.
“Gotcha.” She grabs the ring of keys hooked to her belt.
I’ve taken so many dogs off her hands that we’ve cut the paperwork down. Anyway, the pound’s application is nothing compared to the one I make people fill out before I’ll let them adopt from Starlight Animal Rescue.
“Just the one this time?” Wanda asks.
“Nope.” I pull three leashes out of the pockets of my baggy jeans.
“Three?” Wanda asks. She knows two’s my limit. Hard enough to train two dogs at once.
But this time I’m getting the dogs for something special. “You know old Mrs. Coolidge?”
“Everybody knows Georgette Coolidge,” Wanda says.
It’s the truth. The woman is a real character. Her son Chester Coolidge is my foster dad. Also a character. Mrs. Coolidge doesn’t even like animals that much. But she keeps finding abused animals and sending them to the Rescue. She sends us people too—prospective pet owners. The old woman makes me a little crazy, but she’s a good one to have on our side.
“So what’s that lady up to now?” Wanda asks. She unlocks the Blab’s cage, and he jumps out. But he doesn’t run off. Wanda snaps on the leash and hands me the dog.
I reach down and scratch the dog’s back and chest, then behind his floppy ears. First thing I’ll do is fatten him up. “Mrs. Coolidge has been pressuring the nursing home, Nice Manor, to pilot a pet program with some of their assisted-living people,” I explain. “Don’t know that much about it, but I’m getting dogs ready in case it works out.”
“If that woman is pushing for it, I have no doubt the program will go through,” Wanda says. “So, you give dogs to the nursing home residents?”
“Not exactly.” I never just
dogs to anybody. Not even to Mrs. Coolidge. “I’ll pretrain the dogs first. Then I’ll pretrain the old people. After that, I’m not sure. Guess we’ll see how it plays out. Mrs. Coolidge seems to think it’s going to work.”
The Blab tosses his head and jerks the leash, making me think he’s never had a leash before.
Wanda untangles the Blab’s leash for me. “Where do you start?”
“I want the dogs to bond with the old people. Not just with me. So I’ll get them to help with the basic obedience training. That way the dogs can bond with
“Bet the old folks will like that,” Wanda says. “My great-aunt’s in one of those nursing homes up in Cleveland. She should get a dog. Might give her something to talk about besides her aches and pains.”
“If everything works out and the dogs bond with the old people, then Mrs. Coolidge says I can do more advanced training.”
Wanda scrunches up her face. She’s bone-skinny but still has two chins when she makes this face. “Don’t tell me Mrs. Coolidge plans on getting those old folks to show the dogs at dog shows.” She eyes the Blab, who has been chewing on my shoelaces for the last few minutes.
“Nah. Not that kind of advanced training. Practical stuff. Like if somebody’s deaf, we can train her dog to nudge her when the phone rings or when somebody knocks at the door. I could train the dogs to fetch things for people when they’re in bed or in a wheelchair. Stuff like that.”
“That’s pretty cool, Wes,” Wanda says. “So, made up your mind on the other two dogs yet?”
We both stare at the cages. This is the hardest part. It’s like choosing which dogs will live and which won’t. I hate this part.
“Better give me two females,” I tell her. We both know female dogs are easier to housebreak.
She nods, then glances at her watch. “What about that Chihuahua you got here a while back? Wouldn’t that one make a good nursing home dog?”
“I placed Taco last month.” I miss that dog, but the guy who took Taco was a perfect match. Retired, fussy, and a guy who kept his house warm enough for Taco.
The terrier is still cowering in the back of her cage. “Let me see the terrier mix.”
Wanda opens the cage, but she has to lift the dog out. She hands the trembling dog to me. As soon as I have her, the terrier buries her nose in the crook of my elbow. She’s scared, but she’s not scared of me. Probably the noise around here.
I shouldn’t take her. She’s too shy. She won’t like the noise of a group home. Plus, she’s old enough to have bad habits.
The dog pokes her snout deeper into the crook of my elbow.
I know better than to fall for “cute.” This dog is all wrong for a noisy nursing home, where dozens of people could grab for her at the same time.
I scratch her back, and her tail wags. “I’ll take her,” I say, regretting it as soon as the words are out.
“Thought you would,” Wanda says.
“And that ugly female over there.” It’s not the bulldog’s fault she’s so ugly.
“This one?” Wanda asks, going right to the dog. No doubt which one I mean. “I’m guessing this dog’s going to a blind person, right?” She laughs and opens the cage.
“Not a bad idea,” I admit.
Wanda helps me leash the three dogs. It’s a good start. It won’t be easy training three at the same time. But they’re good-natured.
Doors swoosh open, and footsteps sound up the hall. The blonde receptionist appears. She rushes toward us but stops before she reaches the cages.
“Hank’s here!” she cries, like she’s announcing an early Christmas. “He’s right outside! Honking for you.”
“Okay.” I turn to go, but I hear dog toenails scratching on a cage floor. I shouldn’t glance back at the dogs I’m leaving, but I can’t help it.
It’s the Pomeranian making all the fuss. With his three legs, he scrambles to his feet and barks. Just once. But it feels like he’s talking to me. I’d almost forgotten about my headache. Now it creeps back, pounding with every yap of the Pomeranian.
The bulldog and the beagle-Lab are pulling at their leashes, stretching me in opposite directions. The poor terrier tries to lie down between my shoes.
And the Pomeranian keeps barking.
“Hank’s waiting!” the receptionist shouts, like she’s afraid he’ll get away.
I’ve already got more work than I can handle at Starlight Animal Rescue. Plus, I’ve got my own dog, Rex, to walk. Not to mention the fact that I need to train a dog for my mom.
“Yeah. I’m coming.” I shuffle as far as the silver doors. Then I hear the Pom’s single bark again.
I stop. The terrier crawls between my shoes. The Blab gets the leash in his teeth. The ugly-as-sin dog is tangled in the terrier’s leash.
But I can’t leave that three-legged dog.
I sigh, big and heavy. I don’t need this. Three dogs are already too many. A three-legged, scrawny, good-for-nothing dog wouldn’t be a lick of good in a nursing home.
Wanda passes me and shoves open the silver door. I hear Hank’s horn honking outside.
“Wait!” I shout. “I’m taking the tripod.”