I have posted two other excerpts - isn't that just the strangest looking word - from the novel in progress. One is at the bottom of this page and the other is here.
The man let the broken screen door slam behind him, making the boy look up from his homework with concern. He could see the temper rising off his father like dust from old tires on a dry dirt road.
“You git off your lazy butt and git out to that shed and you clean every cage. I’m so tired of your worthless ass sittin’ here doing nothin’. You’re old enough to start earnin’ your keep. Just ‘cause you go to that fancy school and git on computers and read your books, you act like you know everything. Let’s see how damn smart you are after you do some real work. Go on. I’m sick and tired of lookin’ at you. I am so damn tired to my bones.”
The boy looked into his father’s eyes and said, “Yessir” as he closed his math book, keeping his place with his homework page. His heart fairly leaped out of his chest. He couldn’t believe this explosion of good luck. Any time he was caught anywhere near the dogs he got a whipping from his father. He got a cursing for making the dogs “soft”. “They ain’t pets,” the man would spit. “They’re investments. They’re dinner and electric bills and the goddam roof over our heads. You go out there spoiling them and they don’t have no puppies and I don’t have no way to pay the mortgage, and we’re on the street.”
He had no earthly idea what had caused this abrupt turnaround on his father’s part, but he was thrilled at the notion of being sent out to take care of the dogs. He had been sneaking out to the shed all his life, and here he was following an order to do what he loved most. He walked the rutted path through the desolate back yard quickly, quietly praying that he wouldn’t hear the screen door slam again with his father’s mind changing faster than the whip hitting his bare butt.
By habit, he slid through the smallest possible crack in the old shed doors. The odor smacked him silly, as it always did, but this time he could do something about it. He turned back and opened the door, hanging heavily askew on its rusty hinges. Some of the stink went out and some light came in. He had never dared take the time to count before, but now he quickly counted cages and dogs. Ten cages on the bottom back row, each with three to five dogs. Five on each bottom side row, mostly with three dogs. Standing alone in the center of the shed were stacks of three larger cages, three tall, each with a bitch nursing a litter of puppies. His eyes returned to the back of the shed. Stacked on the bottom row was another row of twelve crates, though these held two to three dogs each. Six more were stacked on each side row, with three perched on the top of those. And on the top of the back cages were five small rusted cages, each containing a male dog.
There were one hundred and five dogs in that shed, not counting the nine litters of puppies.
The boy was overwhelmed for a moment. He couldn’t believe there were that many dogs and he just didn’t know where he would start.
Please! I’m so thirsty. We’re hungry! Please! Water! Pain. Oh, Boy, please help us.
The voices were so loud in his heart, in his head, for just a moment he covered his ears.
"You know what to do. You are here and you know and some of us are dying."
That one clear voice gave him courage and jolted him out of his shock. He nodded at the little whippet, his “Angel” and he got to work. First the water buckets. He opened cages and grabbed buckets as fast as he could. He scrubbed the buckets in the work sink, using burning hot water and bleach and an old scrub brush he found in a corner. He filled them with fresh cold clean water and put them back in the cages. And he moved to the next row.
After all the dogs had fresh water, he started to work on the food bowls. Some were crusted with old food full of maggots, and the boy wretched every so often. But he shook his head and breathed through his mouth and kept on. He washed all of them out first, scrubbing until his fingers started to crack and bleed, oblivious. He was frantically aware of how fast the time was passing. When he looked in the food bin, the kibble was moldy, and the boy swore under his breath. The dogs, who were finding their voices and a little strength and a tiny feeling of hope after drinking the fresh water started barking, crying, screaming for food. It was contagious.
“Quiet! ”shouted the boy. “He’s going to come out here. Please, please try to be quiet. I am going as fast as I can.”
The barks and screams turned to shuddering whines. The boy ran out to his father’s truck and found a new bag of kibble in the back. He dragged it back to the shed, though it practically outweighed him, tore it open and started filling the beat up but clean bowls. He loaded as many bowls as he could carry and went from cage to cage. Some of the cages were so cramped with dogs that he couldn’t figure out where to put the bowl. Some of the dogs couldn’t stand, didn’t even try. Some of them looked away from the bowl.
This upset the boy terribly. But he put a food bowl in every single cage. Then he went back to the dogs who weren’t even trying to eat. He added a little water to the kibble to see if that would help. It did, in a few cases. He held some kibble in his hand for some of the weaker dogs, and they took a bit, to be polite.
He went to the whippet’s cage. She had emptied her water bucket. He raced to the utility sink and filled it again, physically hurting from knowing how little time remained for him to be out there. He put her water bucket back in the cage. She tried to wag for him. This was a dear soul, she knew. The boy gently stroked the top of the little dog’s head.
“You gotta eat, girl. You’re nothing but skin and bones and sores. Oh, man, look at those sores. Here - try just a bite of food.”
The dog ate some kibble and her eyes never left his. She drank in his kindness with even more desperation than she had the water. Her infected teeth caused her just amazing pain with every chew, but she could taste the boy’s joy with each bite, so she took bite after stabbing bite.
“I knew you could eat something,” the boy said with a grin. The pinched face of the dog and the thin face of the boy were only inches apart. For a moment, oblivious of the stench, the sores, and the filth, the boy leaned his forehead against the dog’s forehead. Her heart pounded with such abandon, she felt her ribs could no longer hold the thing. Surely it would escape her broken body and run some butt tucked zoomies, and land right in the boy’s chest. Her sunken eyes widened and she managed some wags which were so successful that her tail actually thumped the side of her cage. The boy felt his throat tighten and his eyes stung with desperate tears, and he kissed the little bony dog.
“I got to go. I’ll come back. I’ll make you get well.” He looked at all the other eyes. “I’ll try and I’ll make it ok for all of you. I sure don’t know how, but I will.”
He kicked the dirt in a rage of exhausted frustration as he crossed back to the house. What could he do? He was sure that if he only had a mother, there would not be a hundred starving dogs in a shed behind his house. He stopped with his hand on the screen door. Other boys had mothers. Other boys had dogs that played ball and slept on their beds. Other boys had fathers that came to school programs and put their arms over their sons' shoulders and beamed with pride. Other boys.
The boy wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve and crept by the snoring form of the man, his father. He quietly took his math book to bed, but he fell asleep before his homework was finished. He ached. In his heart, in his bones. Too much for a boy. He dreamed of a soft hand on his cheek and he and the little whippet were running and he heard a lady laughing.
copyright Patience C Renzulli, all rights reserved
A Spring In Her Step
44 minutes ago