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 The Lead

 By Donna Owczarek

Scott woke to the bedlam of thunder and opened his eyes to see a serpent of lightning stealing shadows from the corners of his apartment.

I forgot to close the windows in my truck!

He raced outside. Just as he reached his pick-up, a sinewy silhouette darted past. Startled, he hesitated briefly before stealing forward and peering around the bed.

Hunched low to the ground, a bedraggled dog blinked back.

Instinctively kneeling down, Scott turned sideways and averted his gaze. He cautiously offered his palm. “Come here, boy.”

Whining, the dog remained immobile.

Scott shuffled backwards to distance himself from the dog. “It’s ok. Come here.”

The dog crept forward a few feet and froze. Although wide eyed, with ears snug against its skull, the dog thumped its tail hard against the pavement, sending water spraying in the air.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “Over here.”

A bolt of lightning illuminated the sky, sending the dog skittering sideways.

Shivers scrawling along his spine, flannel pants soggy, Scott sighed. Why am I bothering? He knew the answer. The dog reminded him of his own dog Hancock, deceased less than a year. He found himself smiling at the remembrance of peeling back the shower curtain to discover his eighty pound German shepherd quaking inside the tub at the mere whisper of a rainstorm. The look in this dog’s eyes mirrored those that lingered in his memory.

Deciding to risk temporarily abandoning the dog, he hurried back indoors in search of a rope. Opening his closet, he noticed the shoe box that contained Hancock’s old collar and photos on a shelf near the floor.

Did I keep his leash?

Scott knelt down and hastily removed the cover, delighted to discover the British style slip lead waiting to be of service. He gingerly removed it, careful not to drip water onto Hancock’s photos. The worn leather soft and familiar in his grasp, he held it tightly for a long moment before standing. Then he crossed his studio apartment to the fridge where he dripped water onto the linoleum while fishing strips of pork from a carton of leftover Lo Mein.

Hurrying into the storm, he circled his truck only to discover barren pavement. He glanced up and down the vacant street. Stooping, further soaking his pajamas in a puddle, he peered past the tires and underneath his truck.

No dog.

Surprised by the pang of disappointment he felt, he slowly retraced his steps towards his empty apartment. A whimper emanated from the shrubs that lined the path that led to his side entrance. Stopping, he parted the bushes and blinked in surprise.

The dog had wedged as much of its body as possible into the window well, its hindquarters and tail sticking up and its head secluded in shadow. Scott leaned forward and peered down at the dog’s face.

Two eyes stared back dolefully.

“I don’t think you fit,” he said, attempting to suppress his laughter.

He tossed a small bit of pork into the well where it landed mere inches from the dog’s muzzle.

The dog sniffed indecisively. His tail thumped once and he slowly stretched his long tongue towards the tidbit.

CRACK!

The sky split open in sudden fury.

Panicked, the dog vainly attempted to scramble further into the hole, the food forgotten.

“Too scared to eat, huh? Guess it’s time to get you inside.”

Hoping the dog was not aggressive; Scott looped the leash and dangled it above the dogs head. Then he stepped forward, anticipating that the dog would attempt to flee.

His ploy worked.

As the dog bolted from his makeshift den, the noose slipped over his head and Scott immediately pulled it taught. Then he tugged gently and backed out of the bushes, bracing himself for a struggle.

Instead, resigned of his capture, the dog surprised him by obediently following. The dog walked quietly up the path and through the doorway into the foyer, but balked when Scott started down the stairs.

“It’s okay. C’mon”

The dog peered down the stairwell suspiciously.

Scott tugged gently.

The dog refused, first struggling against the lead and then, as Scott loosened his hold, sitting back firmly on his haunches.

Scott withdrew another piece of pork from his pocket and held it out to the dog.

He sniffed warily before gently plucking it like a rose from between Scott’s fingers.

Under the light, Scott removed the lead and examined his prisoner. No collar adorned the dog’s matted nape. Shaped similar to a German shepherd, yet not as lengthy, the dog was emaciated. His ribs protruded from his long, black fur and his waist resembled an hourglass.

He tossed a piece of food down the stairwell.

The dog watched it longingly, but refused to follow.

“Suit yourself,” he said, nonchalantly descending the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he stepped out of sight around a corner, deserting the bewildered dog.

Laying the leash on the counter, Scott grabbed dry clothes from a stack of wire crates and headed to the bathroom. After toweling off and donning warm clothes, he stepped from the bathroom and found that not only had the dog braved the stairs, he had made himself quite cozy – on his futon!

“I don’t think so.” Hoping to avoid physically confronting an unfamiliar dog, he stepped towards the dog and in the most confident voice he could muster, commanded, “Off!”

The dog complied, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It slowly slunk to the floor and coiled into a ball, liquid brown eyes surveying Scott over the tuft of its tail.

“Good Boy!”

The dog responded with a dissatisfied grunt.

Laughing, he decided to fix a small pot of coffee. Although the clock read 2:00 AM, he felt wide awake and wanted to warm himself. Next he grabbed two storage bowls from a cabinet. He filled one with water and in the other he dumped the remaining Lo Mein. Not the best meal for a dog, but it would suffice.

“Here yah go.” He placed both bowls on the floor.

The dog stood and cautiously approached, watching Scott worriedly.

“It’s okay. Enjoy.”

Upon hearing ‘okay’ the dog began wolfing down noodles.

While the dog polished plastic, Scott removed a raggedy old sleeping bag from his closet shelf. He unraveled it, folded it twice and laid it on the floor in front of the futon.

“You can sleep there, if you like.” He pointed.

After lapping some water, Scott’s houseguest padded over to investigate. Apparently satisfied with the accommodations, he turned in three circles before curling up, closing his eyes and uttering a contented sigh.

When finished sopping water from first the futon and next the kitchen floor, he poured himself some coffee and then sat at his computer. He located the local animal shelter and printed driving directions, noting that they opened at nine.

Next he curiously perused a dog breed website and promptly found a likely match. He studied the slumbering canine. The dog strongly resembled a Belgian sheepdog.

Surely a purebred dog would not be roaming loose without identification?

Draining the last of his coffee, Scott decided to call it a night. Rather than disturb the weary dog, he lay down without opening the futon. In silence he speculated about the dog’s past. Judging by his condition, he had fended for himself for some time. No doubt someone missed him terribly. Hopefully. Had Hancock ever been lost, he knew he would have been devastated. Yet the thought of bringing the dog to the shelter plagued him like an overdue bill.

What if no one claims him?

Scott knew he could not afford to keep the dog. Downsizing had left him unemployed for three months and with the way the economy had been, the prospect of finding another job in marketing seemed grim. With negative bank balances bounding unbidden through his mind, he sunk into fitful slumber.

He awoke to find the at dog eye level, eagerly staring at him. Startled, he sat up, and gazed across the room at the microwave clock. Green numbers glaringly reported he had overslept.

“You poor thing, you must need to go out.”

As he dressed, the dog shadowed him impatiently.

He grabbed the leash off the counter where he had laid it the night before. The dog wagged its tail enthusiastically as Scott slipped the lead over his head. An ache in his stomach nagged him relentlessly. Deciding it best to head directly to the shelter before second thoughts arose, he snatched his keys and wallet on the way out.

The dog relieved itself quickly and then strolled calmly alongside him to the truck. While he drove, the dog commandeered Hancock’s former station. He sat on the small bench seat behind the driver’s seat, grinning as the world whizzed past the window.

At the shelter, a short stocky woman in weathered jeans listened to his story and offered him a warm smile.

“I’ll get our scanner and we’ll hope for the best.”

Only minutes later she located a microchip.

Secretly saddened, Scott scratched the dog’s head quietly while the shelter worker slipped into her office and began searching her database. After a few moments she picked up the phone. He could not hear the conversation, but momentarily she put the phone on hold and slid open the glass window.

“I found his owner. Did you want to drop him off or leave him here for pick-up?”

“I’ll drop him off.” Might as well, I’ve got nothing better to do.

The woman scribbled down an address and thanked him for his trouble.

Arriving at the address, Scott stared at the sign above the entrance in disbelief.

PROSPECT MARKETING

Inside, the secretary ushered him and his charge to an office on the second floor. The door read Alan M. Keller, VP.

A well dressed man opened the door and immediately cried, “Max!”

Scott let go of the leash and the dog raced over to the man. Unconcerned about his suit, Mr. Keller knelt down and threw his arms around the dog.

His voice cracking, he whispered, “I missed you so much.”

Max squirmed in delight while plastering his master’s chin with doggie drool.

Watching in silence, Scott’s emotions teetered on the brink of sorrow only to be pulled back by joy.

After a few moments, Mr. Keller straightened and addressed him. “Thank you for finding him. He took off from an agility competition over a month ago when an unexpected storm startled him from the ring. I have been searching for him ever since.”

He looked down and gently grabbed his dog’s scruff.

Max stared adoringly up at his owner, tail wagging furiously.

“There’s a reward for him. Let me get my checkbook.”

“No thanks, I’m just glad he’s back where he belongs.”

Mr. Keller shook his hand. “I can’t thank you enough. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, please let me know.”

Well, I might as well give it a shot. “Truthfully, it’s funny that you ask. If you ever have a job opening, I would love an interview.” He quickly added, “I have experience.”

“Actually,” Keller grinned, “we do. Come back tomorrow at ten with your resume and I will interview you personally.”

Scott lent Mr. Keller his lead for the night, in exchange for quiet hope.

The next day, Scott left his interview with a smile on his face and the promise of a paycheck to ease his economic uncertainties. He hopped in his truck and gently laid Hancock’s lead on the passenger seat. Looking lovingly at the braided leather, he pondered if Hancock had somehow played a part in his good fortune.

Thank you.

Turning the key in the ignition, he pulled away. When he arrived at his destination a familiar face welcomed him with a smile.

“Why hello again. May I help you?”

“Yes,” he told the woman behind the glass. “I’m here to adopt a dog.”