A Desperate Dog. A Scarred Girl. A Bond Nothing Can Break.★★★★★ “Emotional, heart-wrenching and heartwarming. I was lost in this story from the very beginning. It's beautifully written and will stay with me for a long long time.” Curled Up With A Good Book (book blog)
An injured, young dog trudges the city streets, trembling from cold, from fear, from lack of food. Battered by the howling wind, he searches desperately for his lost family, yet day after day, week after week, all he ever finds is heartbreaking loneliness. But then, one magical spring morning...
Across town, a little girl sobs into her pillow in the dead of night. Her life devastated by a family tragedy, she can't understand how the world can just carry on. Her days once overflowed with childhood joys, yet now, despair, darkness, and emptiness smother her like a shroud. But then, one magical spring morning...
... the dog and the girl meet.
In a tale as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, As The Stars Fall explores how compassion can make us whole again and friendship can heal even the most broken of hearts.
★★★★★ “A great story with a beautiful, heartwarming ending.” Tom Kiker, Amazon
★★★★★ “Thought provoking and well written. [I] loved it so much I've bought 2 paperbacks to give as Christmas presents! It'll break your heart and rebuild it again.” C. Johnson, Amazon
★★★★★ “A story that is equal parts intense beauty and heart wrenching agony... I know I'll still think of this story years down the road.” Insatiable Readers book blog
★★★★★ “A heartwarming, touching, and poignant novel about the love between a dog and a young girl.” Paula, Amazon
★★★★★ “A perfect book for dog lovers. It is a story of courage, determination and love.” Library Lady, Amazon
★★★★★ “I almost laughed myself into an asthma attack during certain scenes and cried at the end of this book, all the while wondering if this is how my own dog perceives me.” Kathy Banfield, Goodreads
★★★★★ “[I] highly recommend it especially if you like books like Marley and Me, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and similar stories.” Storeybook Reviews book blog
With this special edition, you get:
- an author interview
- discussion questions for book clubs
- As The Stars Fell (free companion ebook).
- #1 Pet Dogs
- #1 British Contemporary Fiction
- #1 Animal Care & Pets
If you love dogs, you need to read As The Stars Fall right now.
Release date: August 25, 2020
Publisher: Blue Zoo
Print pages: 252
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
As The Stars Fall: A Book for Dog Lovers
Steve N Lee
Dog shivered on the edge of the curb, his brown coat sodden, raindrops drip-drip-dripping off his nose. The cruel cold gnawing on his bones, he stood transfixed, clinging to a splinter of hope like a hanged man clings to his final breath. He ached to escape this torment and continue his search, but instead, he waited. Hoping.
Rain bounced off the asphalt with tiny splatters, then gushed through the gutters running down either side of the road. Cars growled along the street as gruffly as the people growled along the sidewalk, and drenched black buildings reared all around like monstrous beasts glaring down on their prey.
In the midst of it all stood Dog. Wide-eyed, he gazed at what he knew could never be his — never — yet he couldn’t help but dream, so he stared. Stared at a round-faced man sheltering under a blue awning twenty feet away. A round-faced man shoveling doughnuts into his mouth.
The man’s tongue slithered out, licking the white powder and red goo from his lips. Dog licked his lips too, even though there was nothing to wipe away.
Oh, that smell! Sugary, fruity, fresh, warm. A string of drool dangled from Dog’s mouth and dribbled into a shallow puddle by his front paws. He dreamed of what it might be like to have just one bite of such a wondrous delicacy.
Hunger twisted his gut like some crazed creature trying to claw its way out. He hunched over, a whimper escaping.
Dog didn’t like to beg, to admit he’d failed; he was a big dog now and big dogs didn’t fail. Since losing his mother, he’d sniffed out something to eat every day — everything from a half-eaten burger dumped in an alley to a handful of potato chips crushed into the sidewalk. However, over the last five days, he’d found nothing, even though he’d trailed the streets until his paws hurt.
Sitting back on his haunches, Dog gazed at the man, tilting his head to one side and making his big brown eyes even bigger.
The man dipped his hand into a paper bag, pulled out another doughnut, then savaged it, white goo oozing out and dribbling down his chin. Dog could almost taste it. So sweet, so creamy, so… Dog melted inside as the man wolfed down chunk after chunk.
The man lifted the last morsel to his lips as his wandering gaze fell upon Dog.
Their eyes met.
The man froze, mouth agape, then dropped his hand from his lips.
Dog wagged his tail, flicking water up from the sidewalk.
“Hungry, huh?” The man held out the scrap.
Wow, that was easy. If only every day were filled with such delicious miracles.
Wagging his tail harder, Dog trotted toward him.
The man scowled, yanking back his foot to kick. “Get the…”
“Cookie trick! Danger! Danger!” screamed a voice in Dog’s head. Rump down to make himself a smaller target, he scuttled beyond reach. Kicks hurt. Hurt so much.
Tail between his legs, Dog skulked along, scanning everything and everyone, wary of what might be lurking in the gloom that drenched him as thoroughly as the rain.
He always had to be alert.
Someone called out behind him. He flinched and glanced back as one boy shouted to another. Even though the boys were a long way off, Dog scurried on. Boys were cruel. Being tempted by a cookie that time had cost him dearly. He’d limped for a week after falling for that trick.
He quickened his pace.
Danger was everywhere. Slashing claws, gnashing teeth, punishing fists and feet… any of them could come at any moment.
Though far worse dangers were out there.
He shuddered and peered around again, praying he wouldn’t see the Gray Man about to pounce.
Only ordinary people hustled along the street — people who barely noticed him. Dog sighed with relief and tramped on, as he always did. The world was hard, but at least understanding his place in it was easy: he was a nobody from nowhere, as insignificant as a shadow in twilight’s last glimmer.
He reached the building where the five fake-people stood motionless in a big window all day, every day. It wasn’t their lack of movement that gave them away as fake, but their lack of a proper scent whenever the door opened and warm air wafted out. Other than changing their clothes once in a while, they did nothing, yet passersby often found them so fascinating they stopped to gawk.
Today, a young woman gazed at them from beneath a red umbrella, as if the fakers had a deep secret to share with those willing to join their pack.
Dog tottered over and slumped against the building, gasping for breath, legs shaking from weakness as lack of food sapped his energy. Hanging his head, he closed his eyes for a moment’s rest. There had to be something to eat somewhere, some scrap a stranger had tossed away or dropped. Anything. Just a crumb to stop the grinding pain in his belly and give him the strength to do what he had to do.
Lifting his head, he scoured the scents drifting on the air, homing in on the source of each for his eyes and ears to expand on what his nose was telling him: a man who’d dined on fish for lunch, a crushed can containing a few drops of sugary liquid, a woman wheeling a bawling child sitting in its own poop…
He eyed the mute, motionless fakers in the window, then the mute, motionless woman staring at them. No one was doing anything, so what was going on? Could she see something he couldn’t?
He didn’t get people — they fixated on the strangest things. Every day, they bustled around, clinging to boxes and bags obviously filled with precious things. Then the next day, back they came for even more boxes and bags filled with even more precious things.
Yet despite their endless hunt for precious things always being so fruitful, they never seemed happy. At least, not the people he came across. It was a mystery, and while Dog loved a good mystery, all his pondering on this one had failed to reveal a conclusive answer: people were either plain out-and-out crazy or simple creatures easily distracted by the most fleeting of whims. Sadly, neither boded well for establishing any sort of relationship with any of them.
The red-umbrella-woman did a double take, noticing he was watching her. She eyed him up and down.
Dog gently wagged his tail. Some people seemed to like that, and while it didn’t work often, when it did, they threw him a scrap of sandwich or a bit of cookie, or, on rare occasions, gave him a little pat. He always hoped for food, yet bizarrely, sometimes a pat felt even better. It was like, for a few seconds, he was no longer invisible and that made him glow inside. Maybe people weren’t the only ones who were crazy.
The tiniest sneer flickered across the woman’s face as if it was insulting to share the same space with him. She turned her back and flounced away.
Dog sighed. Sometimes being invisible was preferable to being seen.
Desperate to find something to eat, he pushed away from the wall, but lightheadedness suddenly swept over him and he staggered sideways. He caught himself before he fell, then slumped back against the building. Soon. He’d search again soon.
Dog closed his eyes to gather his strength.
“Dog,” called a woman’s voice.
His chest heaving, Dog gulped air while he rested his weary legs.
The voice came louder. “Hey, dog!”
Dog opened his eyes at the sound of a raised voice and turned his head to investigate. A woman stalked directly toward him, draped in a jacket made of the blackened skin of some flattened animal.
He gasped, his eyes popping wider.
The woman strode closer and closer, her long brown hair soaked and plastered to her head.
The jacket, the hair, the purposeful approach… oh boy, was she scary. Dog trembled.
If he pushed off the wall to run, he’d collapse, so he did the only thing he could — he screwed his eyes shut, cowered to be as small a target as possible, and braced for the shower of kicks that would inevitably come.
He waited. Shaking.
The voice softened. “You okay, little fella?”
Praying he could be invisible again, Dog held his breath. If he didn’t move, didn’t even breathe, maybe the scary woman would leave him alone.
After a few seconds, with the rumble of traffic the only sound, he dared to peek through one eye, hoping the danger had passed.
The woman was crouched only a few feet away, staring right at him.
“Stay there.” She raised an open palm toward him. “I’ll try to find a store for some kibble, okay?”
If she took just one more step, that hand would be within striking distance to clobber him. He couldn’t run, but he had to do something. Maybe he could drive her away to give him the time he needed to recover.
“So there’s still some fight in you yet, huh, boy? Good.” She straightened up. “Stay there. I’ll be back.”
She strolled away. Unlike the other people who scurried through the rain like it was hot and would scald them, or shuffled hunching over in a futile bid to stay dry, she glided with an animal-like grace, the weather seeming to mean nothing to her. A moment later, she vanished around a corner.
Dog gulped a huge breath. Oh boy, that was close. Talk about a lucky escape. However, in case she came back, he had no choice but to leave as soon as possible, whether he was ready or not.
Easing off the wall, he let his legs take his full weight to check if he could stand without falling. He swayed, then held steady, so he trudged on. He glanced around to make sure the woman wasn’t coming back, then shuffled over to the curb, peering across the road and farther down the street.
There it was.
His heart beat that little faster, a flicker of hope dancing inside it. Maybe today would be the day and he’d find a message waiting for him. A message saying they were okay, they were back, they were searching for him just as he was for them.
Yes, today felt like a good day. He was sure today was going to be the day. The best day ever.
Hope soothing his aches, his tail swept up from between his legs and a renewed bounce filled each step. Yes, today was the day. After all, it was only logical that all the bad days eventually balanced out with good days. And only a fool argued with logic.
Gaze fixed on his goal, he trundled out into the road.
A deafening honk blared.
Dog jumped and whipped his head around as a blue bus thundered straight at him. He darted across to the other sidewalk as the vehicle tore past just inches from him.
Safe, Dog gulped a deep breath and watched the bus disappear.
What must it be like to travel inside such a machine? Surely it was only for the bravest of people, those who lived for adventure. But that was another mystery for another day. Only one thing mattered now, as it did every day at this time: had he been left a message?
He’d been disappointed so often he almost didn’t want to check, but he had to. Hope laced with despair churned inside him as he dodged around the people dashing around in an attempt to stay dry.
Yes, today was the day. He could feel it.
And then, straight ahead, there it was.
He quickened his pace, eager to learn the secrets it kept.
It stood near the entrance to the park, where it always stood. Silent, commanding, conspicuous. It never moved, never made a sound, never did anything except stand in the same place all day, every day, making it ideal for what they’d needed.
The red fire hydrant gleamed in the rain.
Dog sniffed the air as he drew closer and scoured the scents. He ignored some, filtered out others to investigate further, then moved on to what remained. Scent after scent after scent.
Ten feet away, his shoulders slumped and he slowed to a shuffle.
There was no new message — no, not today. Just like there hadn’t been yesterday, or the day before, or any of the days since that nightmare day when it had happened. His nose was never wrong.
His legs heavy with disappointment, Dog plodded over to the hydrant, sniffing, but already knowing what he’d find.
They were still here — all four of them — but weaker now. So weak, it would soon be impossible for him to tell they’d been there at all. Time was washing them away from the hydrant just as it was washing them away from his memories.
But that wasn’t the only reason they were fading. Another scent marked the hydrant. A powerful scent. A dark scent. Dog shuddered. Some monster was overmarking his pack’s scent to wipe them from existence, proclaiming his presence, his dominance. Claiming their territory as his and his alone.
The scent was a few hours old, as it usually was by the time Dog arrived. A fresher scent always saw him turn tail and scuttle away. He’d have loved to arrive first thing in the morning to wait as long as possible for his pack to return, yet he quaked at the thought of meeting the monster face-to-face. There was something about that scent, something ominous, dangerous. Something terrifying.
With the area safe from immediate threat, Dog crept right up to the hydrant and sniffed the left-hand side. There she was, his mother. She’d taught him the importance of marking by peeing on things: to let others know he was around, to attract new friends, to claim something as his… so many incredibly useful messages all in one. It was strange people didn’t pee on stuff when it was such a simple yet powerful technique. Or maybe they did, but he hadn’t yet caught one of them doing it.
Yes, that was another mystery he needed to investigate one day: why didn’t people pee on stuff to announce their arrival or stake their claim? One night a wobbly man had peed against the wall in Dog’s alley, but he wasn’t typical because he’d fallen over as he’d staggered away, so had to be discounted as he was obviously ill. Other than that, Dog hadn’t found a single clue that people peed anywhere.
People were so weird. They were alien creatures compared to every other kind of animal he’d encountered. They simply didn’t fit into the world. They were… awkward. Yes, that was it — awkward. In how they moved and, if the way they interacted with everything around them was any indication, in how they thought.
Dog studied them every day during his search, and the evidence was overwhelming. Instead of eating all their food or hiding it for later, they left it lying on the ground for anyone to take — thankfully! When they tried to run, it was either all flailing arms with red-faced huffing and puffing or dainty steps with barely a change in speed. As for their sense of smell — oh, the way they squawked if they stepped in a tiny bit of poop because they hadn’t smelled it. How could anyone not smell poop?
No, with such appalling survival skills, they didn’t fit into the world. Not at all. Although, that did go some way to explaining why they worked their butts off to change a perfectly good world into something more people-friendly. With all the effort that demanded, it was no wonder they were so grouchy all the time. He’d have to try to be more tolerant of them in the future — they obviously had difficult lives.
Circling the hydrant, he sniffed all around it, reveling in the scent-induced memories as he picked up the smell of each of his three brothers. Though, the littlest was so faint, he might not even be there tomorrow.
Dog hung his head and whined. He was losing them all over again. The first time had been traumatic enough: seeing them all disappearing into the distance hurt his chest worse than any kick he’d ever suffered. He’d cowered in their box, waiting and waiting for them to come back. Whimpering, trembling, alone. He’d waited days, waited until his stomach gnawed at him so much he couldn’t last any longer without eating something.
He’d lost track of how many weeks ago that had been, but these days, when he wasn’t searching for food, he still waited in their box, yet not one of them had made it home so far.
And now, with their scents fading more and more every minute, they were being ripped away from him again.
Pain clawed in his chest. He longed to snuggle up to his mother — to have her scent fill his nostrils, her warmth hug his body, her breathing soothe his troubles.
He whimpered. He didn’t mean to; it just leaked out.
Glancing around, he hoped a passerby might see him, sense his distress, and reach out and touch him. Just for a second so he knew the world wasn’t such a desperate and lonely place, where every being had no choice but to face day after day after day of endless struggle completely and utterly alone.
No one stopped.
No one reached out.
No one even looked at him.
He was invisible.
Hanging his head, tail drooping, he moved around to the other side of the hydrant, raised his leg, and squirted a few drops of pee on an area that wouldn’t cover any of his family’s scent. If they came, they’d know he was still around and to search for him.
Sniffling away the rain from his nose, Dog closed his eyes and drew in the longest breath he could to seal the scent of his pack in his mind and heart forever. Each unique smell of each family member danced on his senses, conjuring a time of snuggling in a box alive with paws and tails and whimpers and yips and warmth and love.
The instant he opened his eyes, they vanished.
With a whimper, he turned away.
Slouching along the street, he checked the ground next to a building for scraps of food, then crossed over to check the gutter.
Drifting on the wind, the faintest hint of something edible grabbed his attention. Dog tipped his nose up into the air. As though the scent had looped a cord around his neck to lead him, it drew him toward a bench under a tree where people often relaxed while eating, but today the black wooden seat was slicked with water and sat empty.
As he got closer, the smell grew stronger. Fries. Fries sprinkled with salt. Soggy, but still fresh.
Excellent! Not only had he found food, but he’d be able to slink under the bench and out of the rain to dine in style. There was a time when he could run under benches like this one without any effort, but for the last couple of weeks, he’d had to remember to duck to get under or he banged his head. Boy, he had to be such a big dog now.
His disheartened shuffle turned into a hopeful stride, and his mouth watered as he imagined burying his snout in a delicious mound of cold potato. It was his lucky day after all! His nose was never wrong, and it said there were enough fries to fill him, so he’d be able to go home to his box early and shelter from the awful weather.
However, there was another scent too. Not the monster from his pack’s hydrant, but something else.
Dog slowed as he neared the bench. He inhaled the scent again, struggling to identify the mysterious smell.
Something moved in the shadows beneath the bench. Something big and black.
Dog crept closer, hunched over to peer underneath it. Fries scattered the ground, and something was eating them.
A big black bird lifted a fry in its beak, tossed its head back, and devoured the soggy strip of potato.
Dog stared at its enormous daggerlike beak as it stabbed at another fry.
Okay, that was a big bird. A very, very big bird. But he was bigger.
He marched forward.
Standing side-on to him, the bird stopped eating and glared from one beady black eye.
Dog prowled forward, a rumbling growl coming from deep in his throat.
Cawww! The bird beat its wings at him.
He gasped and jerked back. Heart racing, he stared at the bird, as confused as he was shocked. This thing did know it was smaller than he was, right?
The bird taunted him by scoffing another fry, and his stomach clenched. He needed food.
Dog bared his teeth, then barked.
The bird devoured another fry as if he didn’t even exist.
Dog barked a second time.
And again, the bird ate another one of his fries.
Dog snorted. That was the last one the bird was having. He was going to eat fries now, then he was going home to wait in his box.
He inched toward the bird. With his head lowered, he glared at it as a growl rumbled in his throat again.
Any moment, the bird would realize what a mistake it had made, flutter like a fool, and disappear into the gloomy sky.
He stalked closer.
The bird continued eating his fries.
So close he could snap at the feathered beast if he stretched. Maybe he wouldn’t be eating fries today; maybe he’d be having bird.
The bird flung its wings open and launched itself at Dog. It pecked his nose, then fluttered back under the bench.
Dog yelped and scrambled back. Slipping in the wet, he crashed to the ground, his bottom jaw hitting the concrete, jarring his teeth.
Clambering up, he glowered at the bird. The bird eating his fries, nice and dry under the bench.
Its head held high, chest puffed out, the bird glowered back. Cawww!
Dog bolted, forsaking the precious food in favor of keeping his nose intact.
Once at a safe distance, he slowed to an amble but glanced back to be sure the bird hadn’t followed him out of spite.
Wise move, too. Not following him was the smartest move that bird had ever made because he was ready for it now. A surprise attack might have worked once, but it wouldn’t work a second time.
He glanced back again, just to be sure.
Still not coming.
Why hadn’t he bitten the horrible thing? Bitten it and eaten the fries. He could have been on his way home after having had a decent meal for a change.
It was just a bird. A bird! He was a big, streetwise dog — or he was supposed to be. What was he doing running away from a bird? What would his mother think? Talk about a wuss.
Maybe he needed to go back and teach the bird what a mean dog he was.
But it really was big. A giant of a bird. What if it hurt his nose so he couldn’t smell to find food or his mother? What then?
Yeah, the smart move would be to leave his revenge for another day.
No, he wasn’t. He was being smart.
He trudged on along the sidewalk.
A young woman, wearing a ribbed blue coat with the hood up, stood looking in a window at more of those fake-people who never moved. She held a chain in her left hand, the other end being tied around a tawny dog’s neck. The woman had mutilated the poor creature — it should have been covered with luscious curly fur, but most of it had been shaven bare, leaving only balled tufts on its feet, head, and chest. As for its tail… where the devil was it? There was little more than a stump left.
The poor thing looked like a circus freak.
Crazy. People were crazy. It was like an illness — people-crazy. Dog hoped it wasn’t contagious.
He stared at the poor beast. Its head bowed, it shivered in the rain.
And Dog thought his life was bad.
Maybe it dreamed of having a friend too and of escaping such abuse. Maybe they could start a new pack together and find a place where there was food, freedom, and definitely — definitely — not a bird in sight.
He trotted over and said hello as any polite dog should — he sniffed his new friend’s butt.
The woman yanked on the chain, jerking her circus dog closer to her. “Get away, you filthy animal!”
Dog leapt back. Moving over to the curb, he scooted around the pair, giving them a wide berth and eyeing the other dog as he passed. The poor animal looked so pathetic. It obviously knew it was doomed to a life of being nothing but a precious thing: an object someone owned, not a companion someone loved.
Dog’s gaze fell to the ground. Even though the circus dog was so abused, at least it wasn’t alone. Dog was never going to be loved like the animals he’d seen people dote over in the park, so what was he going to do if his pack never came back? Be alone forever? Never feel a hand that wasn’t hitting, hear a voice that wasn’t screaming, see a face that wasn’t scowling? Was that a life?
He glanced back at the circus freak. Could it be that some sacrifices were worth making, some abuses worth taking, simply to have the company of another living creature?
A smell slapped Dog in the face, snapping him from his thoughts.
He paused midstride. What was that? Could it be…?
He sniffed. Sniffed again.
Turning his head to the left, he sniffed harder, craning his neck to stick his head out farther in that direction.
It was. He was sure it was. He always trusted his nose, and it was telling him the second-best thing in the world it could ever tell him: hot dog!
Dribs and drabs of people meandered from a green fast-food truck with a giant glowing hot dog hanging over the serving hatch farther down the street. Dog had found food in this area a number of times before, so was today going to be another lucky day?
The scent of succulent cooking pork wafted over: sausages, burgers, hot dogs. Saliva pooled in Dog’s mouth. He passed the truck every day, and the smell always drove him nuts. Not just because it was so heavenly, but because he dreamed of how the warm, fresh meat would taste compared to the occasional cold, decaying scraps he found nearby.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times he dreamed of a fresh hot dog, that was all it was — a dream.
Once, Dog had found the truck’s back door open, so he’d ventured inside. Big mistake. A man in a white apron had screamed and kicked him so hard his ribs hurt for a week, so he’d never tried again and had given up all hope of ever tasting a fresh hot dog. Like anyone was ever going to take someone like him to such a place for a hot meal.
Though his paws ached from tramping the streets since dawn, he quickened his pace, the thought of food — real food, not dream food — powering his weary legs.
A young man and woman strode toward him hunched under an umbrella together. Walking arm in arm, each stared down at a small flat black board in their free hand on which they tapped with their thumb. Too distracted by whatever was on their boards, they didn’t see him but marched on as if he wasn’t there.
Dog jerked sideways to avoid being trampled, then hugged a building’s wall to avoid people as much as possible.
He scampered along, the giant hot dog glowing brighter and brighter as the scent grew stronger and stronger.
He couldn’t get too close to the truck because, following the kicking incident, the aproned man always shooed him away, yet he didn’t have to get close because this smell wasn’t a hot, fresh smell. No, it was different. Old and cold, it meant only one thing — the food had been dumped because it was unwanted. Unwanted by anyone except him.
It really was his lucky day. At last, all the bad times were going to balance out with good times.
Forgetting about the food truck and what he could see, he focused on what he could smell and allowed his nose to guide him past the vehicle.
Ahead on the left, the mouth of a dark alley loomed. He stepped away from the wall toward the middle of the sidewalk, putting some space between him and it as he approached. Except for his own, he didn’t like alleys. Too many bad things had happened in them.
As he got closer, he slowed to a shuffle. Sniffing the air, he shuddered. Maybe his nose was wrong this time. Maybe he wasn’t just hungry but sick, so his nose was misleading him. Or maybe the bird attack had hurt him so his nose was off its game. Whatever it was, this time, his nose was wrong. It had to be.
Creeping along the curb to stay as far away as possible from the alley, he tensed and dared to peer into the shadow-strewn depths. He didn’t want to go in there. He was not going in there.
However, now so close to the entrance, his nose confirmed his deepest fear — the food he so desperately needed was hiding down in the darkness.
But that wasn’t his biggest problem.
Dog skulked over to the corner of the building next to the alley’s gaping mouth, his heart thumping in his chest, threatening to burst out. He inched nearer to the edge of the wall but couldn’t see around. Inched nearer. Nearer still. Tantalizingly close, he craned his neck and leaned so far forward he couldn’t stretch farther without toppling over. Finally, he peeked into the gloom-drenched cavern.
He didn’t need to see into the shadows to know what lurked there because his nose had already told him. There was his hot dog, yes, but now that beguiling smell had entwined with another scent. One far darker, one he’d come across before, one he dreaded.
The fur on his back stood on end and his legs shook, threatening to give and crash him to the ground. His heartbeat skyrocketing, he gulped.
Oh, yes, he knew what waited down there. A monster. Not a bird, but a real monster. The monster that was trying to wipe his pack from existence by overmarking them.
Dog hung his head. He couldn’t go down there knowing what waited for him.
His stomach clawed at him, demanding food. Again, he peeped into the murkiness.
No, it was too dangerous. Only a fool would risk it.
But a wuss would say that, wouldn’t they?
He was not a wuss. It had been a very big, very aggressive bird that could have seriously hurt his nose, and then what? No nose meant no food, so he’d starve. Simple.
Yeah, a wuss would say that, too.
He was not a wuss!
Then why had he run away from a bird of all things? A bird!
Hunger mauled his insides, and his stomach rumbled so loudly people in the next street probably heard it. Dog cringed, imagining the monster hearing and springing at him from the shadows.
He glowered into the darkness. Nothing moved.
Shaking with the nervous energy shooting through his body, he gulped and stepped into the alley, then took another teetering step. He was a big dog now, far bigger than he’d ever been. Big enough to take what he wanted, and he wanted that food, so that was exactly what he was going to do — take it, no matter what was lurking with it.
Dog sucked in the largest breath he could manage. His chest swelled, and he pushed up on all four paws to make himself as tall and broad as possible.
He could do this. He was a big dog now. Big.
He stalked down the alley, scanning the environment. A black metal staircase zigzagged up the side of a wall plastered with dark green algae on the right, while on the left, a blue van was parked between a doorway and two battered dumpsters.
Dog edged farther, each tentative step confirming he was a big dog who could do what was necessary to get what he wanted. Yet, with each step, the buildings stretched up around him, closing in to trap him inside a menacing cage.
His mouth watered, the scent of his hot dog so much stronger. His hot dog.
But someone else thought it was his hot dog too.
Behind the van stood four trash cans, with a fifth knocked on its side to spew garbage onto the concrete. A monstrous hound as dark as night pawed through the pile.
Dog gulped again, hunching over to make himself small, unthreatening, invisible, even though he desperately wanted to be big and dangerous.
Hunger forcing him on, he lifted a paw to take another step, but his legs shook so much they buckled. He just managed to catch himself before he crumpled to the cold concrete. He drew another huge breath and strode on, taking the smallest steps he could, even though each one felt gigantic as they hauled him closer to the gargantuan beast.
This monster was trying to wipe his pack from existence by overmarking their scent. A wuss would run away and let that slide, but a big dog would make it pay for that crime.
Dog tottered forward.
As if destroying Dog’s pack wasn’t enough, now this thing was trying to steal his hot dog. It would pay for that crime too.
Another tiny step.
He’d seen for himself that life was unfair, seen some dogs riding around in cars, cozy and fat, while others haunted the streets, ribs on display for all to count. It made no sense. There had to be balance — win one day, lose the next. It was only logical. Everything had to even out over time, and today there was going to balance. Today was going to be his day because he was eating that hot dog. Period.
Dog slunk closer.
The monstrous hound’s upper lip arched, and a rasping snarl shook the alley. The thing didn’t even look up, obviously seeing him as so little of a threat it couldn’t be bothered.
A voice inside Dog’s head screamed, “Run! Run! Run!”
Although Dog desperately wanted to do just that, he didn’t because there was something he wanted even more, something he needed even more: food, and to prove he was a big dog others should fear.
His paw trembling, he reached forward to take another teetering step.
This time, Hound looked up. Dark eyes burned with fury and bared teeth glistened as Hound snarled a second time, standing up to its full height. The tip of Dog’s nose was barely on the same level as Hound’s chest.
With a gulp, Dog stared up at the savage daggerlike teeth hanging over him.
Dog had fought with his brothers when he was tiny, and he’d held his own, and now he was much bigger than he was then. Or was he? Looking at Hound, he felt like a week-old puppy again. Hound was big. So very, very big.
Dog heaved himself up to be as tall as he could be. Though he was still young, he was wise enough to know it wasn’t always the biggest dog that got what it wanted, but the dog with the biggest bite.
And he wanted his hot dog.
No way could Hound want it more than he did, which meant only one thing: that hot dog was his. His!
If Dog’s ordeal with the bird had taught him anything, it was to confirm size didn’t always win a battle — sometimes it merely came down to who struck first.
Dog hobbled along the sidewalk, holding his left forepaw off the ground. He winced as his right landed on the ground, the impact sending shockwaves through his body, jarring his injuries.
The streetlights cast an eerie yellow light over the dark buildings that walled him in. He never liked to be on the streets this late, but it was taking him longer than normal to struggle back after his encounter with Hound.
He strained to pry his right eye open to better watch for dangers, yet he could manage only a squint through the stinging pain.
Shivering, he gasped for air as he composed himself before pushing himself to take another step. After a few seconds, he lurched forward again, and again he winced at the sharp pain that drove through his body like a stake.
With every step he took, the night sky seemed to sink lower, closing in around him, as if trying to smother him. Its blackness seeped into his body, draining every last drop of his strength and hope as it fought to squash him into the sidewalk, to leave nothing but a stain the rain would wash away.
His legs gave way and he slumped against a brick wall. Though his chest heaved, there wasn’t enough air in the entire world to give him the strength to carry on to his alley.
This was it. The end.
He slid partway down the wall, the dark, damp ground seeming so welcoming.
His mother flashed into his mind.
Dog gritted his teeth. A good dog never abandoned its pack. What if she came back and he wasn’t there waiting for her?
He pushed to stand once more, yelping as pain stabbed his shoulder.
Panting with the effort, he lumbered another step, battling his way along the sidewalk as clouds skittered across the moon. Finally, he turned a corner, and there, only feet away, was a moldy old box lying on its side.
Swaying, Dog had to focus to stop himself from toppling over with the relief.
The sight of the filthy box energized his beaten body. He staggered toward it as fast as he could and collapsed inside. He was home. Home!
He hadn’t eaten today. Again. Neither had he found a message from his mother or any of his brothers. Again. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now he could barely walk.
Every day was nothing but struggle — struggle for food, struggle for warmth, struggle for companionship. And every day was disappointment. Every day. There was no such thing as balance. No win one day, lose the next. It was all lose, lose, lose. Was that really all there was to life? There had to be more than an endless struggle. Surely.
Dog gazed up at the blackness still straining to smother him, now so close he could all but bite it.
There had to be something. Anything. But what?
He stared up at the pinpricks of white set in the darkest of heavens. What were they? So many tiny lights in a wilderness of black, it was almost as if they were lights left on to guide lost loved ones home.
Dog didn’t have a light to guide anyone to him. He whimpered.
Starving, cold, and so alone, he did the only thing a dog could do — he howled. He prayed his mother or his brothers might hear, because if they did, he could guide them home and they’d be a family again. A proper pack.
While the night grew blacker and colder, he howled. And howled. And howled.
And waited. And waited. And waited…
Dog slowly raised his head off the floor of his moldy old box, flinching with pain. The sun was up, but gloom still devoured the alley. Lying on his side, he licked the gash over his ribs, wincing as his tongue scraped over the raw flesh. However, the wound had to be cleaned, so he shut his eyes and tensed his muscles, then licked and licked, pretending there was no pain.
A noise he hadn’t heard before made him freeze, his tongue still out as it dragged over his wound.
He held his breath, listening as hard as he could.
The noise drew nearer.
Pointing his snout at the opening in the front of his box, he sniffed, then cringed. Unknown scents hung in the air.
He sniffed harder.
Oh, no, that was the last thing he needed. No way could he fight after how Hound had injured him. The safest option was to run and hide.
He pushed to get up, but his left front leg buckled and he fell, his face crunching into the floor of his box. As he struggled to get up a second time, the strange noise came again, closer this time. Much, much closer.
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Not now. Please not now. Not when he couldn’t run, couldn’t fight, couldn’t even stand.
Maybe if he stayed still and silent, maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t see him and would leave him in peace. He’d been invisible most of his life, so a few seconds more shouldn’t be difficult.
The noise grew louder, and the scents grew stronger.
Dog hardly dared to sniff for fear the slightest sound would give him away, yet strangely, though the noise was alien to him, it didn’t sound like danger. So, what the devil was it?
It was like something he’d heard on the street, yet different. Like talking, but with rhymes and other sounds playing in the background to create a rhythm. Hearing it now, though, it was a lone voice with no other noises — a young voice.
But the sound didn’t matter; what mattered was it meant people. And people meant only one thing: trouble.
Two slender legs appeared outside his home. Dog froze, heart racing, mind a whirl of nightmares.
“Daddy,” the voice called out, “what shall I do with this moldy old box?”
“Is there anything in it?” asked an older voice.
A young girl looked into Dog’s home, long black locks of silky hair flowing in the light breeze, a stark contrast to her porcelain complexion.
Dog gasped. So did the girl.
Still on his side, Dog kicked frantically but his paws skidded on the smooth floor. Bit by bit, he lurched and bucked his way to the very back of his box, as far away from the danger as he could get — children were always so cruel — but as he squeezed against the wall, he twisted his bad leg and yelped.
“There’s a dog!” called out the little girl.
“A dog, Daddy. There’s a little dog. And I think he’s hurt.”
A hand reached in. Into his box.
The voice in his head screamed again, “Danger! Danger! Danger!”
Battling the pain, Dog scrambled to push up to run, to hide, to get far, far away. He heaved with all his might, straining and straining, yet his bad leg buckled time and again.
And then the strangest thing happened.
The hand didn’t slap him, didn’t punch him, didn’t claw him. Instead, it rested on him ever so gently. Maybe the gentlest thing that had ever existed in the entire history of the world.
An intense feeling of well-being washed over him, and for a moment, it was as if someone else cared about him, as if he’d connected with another living being and was no longer alone. It was the first time he’d felt like that since losing his family. The feeling was so primal, so overwhelming, he couldn’t help but let out a little whimper.
“It’s okay,” said the young voice. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
The girl did a weird thing with her face. It was so weird, Dog couldn’t help but stare. He’d seen people do it before — to each other, never to him — and he’d always wondered why they did it and what it meant, and now, here was a stranger doing it to him. What was wrong with her that she wanted to make her face do something so weird?
With her lips parted, the girl showed him her teeth. But it wasn’t a snarl like he’d seen so many times before. No, this was different. He didn’t know what to make of it except that, in a strange way, it kind of warmed him inside. Weird.
Footsteps clomped closer, and the older voice said, “A dog? In the box?”
The girl looked away from Dog. “He’s hurt. We have to do something.”
As if Dog’s day couldn’t get any worse, another face peered into his home.
What was wrong with these people? He didn’t go into their homes, so why on earth did they think it was okay to barge into his?
The second face was that of a man with a thin line of fur across his upper lip. He smelled of man-flowers: the male version of the fake smell people used to try to mask their natural scent. He had the same pale skin tone, which made the dark rings under his eyes all the more pronounced, but was heavier-set than the wisp-like girl.
The man frowned. “Awww. He’s barely more than a puppy.”
“So we have to help him.”
The man grimaced, his gaze on Dog’s side. “Ouch. It looks like he’s been mauled by another dog.”
“Please, Daddy, help him.”
“I don’t know. If there was some sort of free animal hospital nearby, then of course we could take him, but that…” Daddy sucked through his teeth. “Vet bills can be sky-high for the smallest of things, so something like this…” He loudly blew out a breath. “Oh, boy.”
“But he’s obviously got no one else, Daddy, only us. We have to help.”
“I have my allowance,” said the girl. “And the money Grandma gave me for my birthday.”
Scrunching up his face, Daddy shook his head. “I don’t—”
“I’ll do all the work to take care of him,” she said. “Honest, Daddy. You won’t even know he’s there.”
“It’s not so simple, honey. A dog’s a big responsibility. They’re more work than you think.”
“Daddy, I’m not a little girl anymore; I’m nine now. I can do stuff, if you let me.”
“I know you can, sweetheart” — he rested a hand on her shoulder — “but we don’t know anything about him or where he’s come from. How do we know someone isn’t looking for him?”
“If they are, they’re not trying very hard.”
“Poor little thing. He’s just skin and bones.” Daddy reached into Dog’s home. “Have you been in the wars, boy?”
Another hand reaching into his home was too much! Dog growled, then snapped at him.
Daddy jerked back.
“Don’t be scared, Daddy. He won’t bite.” The little girl reached in again.
Daddy snatched her hand away. “Don’t, Mia. He’s dangerous.”
“No, he isn’t.” Mia reached in with her other hand and rested it on Dog’s side. She showed her teeth to Daddy. “See?”
Dog didn’t snarl, didn’t growl, didn’t pull farther back into his box. He stared up into Mia’s face, into her blue eyes that sparkled like the water in the park on a glorious spring morning. He’d never seen eyes that color before. The only eyes he’d ever seen so close had all been brown: the eyes of his mother and brothers.
He studied her. With such gentle hands and sky-blue eyes, there was something strange about this girl. Strange… but warm, soothing, welcoming.
Mia stroked his back, and he let her. It reminded him of how his mother licked him to wash his fur.
“Kai’s a good dog. See, Daddy? A good dog.” She leaned closer and did the weird thing of showing her teeth again. “Aren’t you, huh, Kai? Aren’t you, boy?”
“Kai? You’ve already given him a name?”
“No. He looks like a Kai, so that’s always been his name.” She continued stroking him and didn’t turn to Daddy. “That’s why you said Mommy called me Mia, isn’t it? Because that wasn’t what you’d decided before I came, was it?”
Daddy looked at the girl with a sadness in his eyes. He stroked her long, flowing hair just the way she was stroking Dog.
“That’s right, sweetheart. Mommy took one look and knew instantly: Mia. She said it couldn’t be anything else.”
“So, she’d understand and want us to help Kai, too.” She looked at Daddy, her big round eyes pleading more than her words. “Please, Daddy, he’s so small and so poor.”
Daddy grimaced and shook his head. “Mia—”
Water welled in the bottoms of the little girl’s eyes.
“It’s not so simple, sweetheart.” Daddy gazed away. “Dogs demand a huge commitment, not just expense. With everything that’s happened, I think it would be a mistake to rush into something like this.”
“But…” She hung her head.
Mia continued stroking Dog, continued soothing his pain, and continued that connection, so he did what a good dog was supposed to do — he leaned around and licked her hand to show his appreciation.
Mia showed even more of her teeth than she had before and made an odd little grunting noise.
Then Daddy did something strange. As he looked at the girl, and how she was showing so many gleaming white teeth, water welled in his eyes too. It was as if he’d never seen such a look on her face and was moved by it. Yet a darkness tinged his expression. A deep, deep darkness. As if he knew the moment would be only fleeting and then that darkness would once more consume them both. As if he knew he had to do something special if he wanted the girl’s expression to last for more than just a few seconds.
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