Chapter 1: Sammy and the bad man
Sammy cowered under the bed in the guest room and covered his ears with his paws. His body shook with stress. He hated it when the Bad Man yelled. Sammy had never liked loud noises, but the Bad Man's shouting was the worst loud noise of all.
"I swear to God, if you don't shut your damn mouth—"
Because Sammy was supposed to make it stop. That was his job, to protect Mom Marie. But he was too afraid. Sammy trembled. His insides churned with fear, worry, and deep-down doggie guilt.
When the Bad Man was angry, his breath smelled sharp and his face got so ugly. He was hurting Mom Marie with his bad words and probably also with push, strike, pinch.
Mom Marie was Mom Charlotte's sister. She'd taken Sammy in after Mom Charlotte died. Sammy didn't love Mom Marie as much as he'd loved Charlotte. When he met Mom Charlotte, he was just a little pup, and he'd loved her with his whole heart and being and soul and stomach and everything. But Mom Marie was a nice human. She stroked his fur and gave him good things to eat. She talked sweet to him. It was Sammy's job to take care of Mom Marie now that he lived with her. But the first time he tried to stand between her and the Bad Man, the Bad Man had yelled and struck Sammy again and again with a big metal tool he'd grabbed from the counter. It hurt. A lot. Sammy's insides had hurt for days. It had hurt to breathe. It had hurt to pee. But the Bad Man's hate hurt the worst of all. Sammy didn't know why the Bad Man hated him so much, but he was the strongest in the pack, so he could do whatever he liked.
Now Sammy was overcome with fear whenever the Bad Man got close. He no longer tried to protect Mom Marie. Instead, Sammy hid under the bed and cowered. He felt shame for his fear and his failure. He was not a good dog at all. He hadn't saved Mom Charlotte the day she'd fallen down the stairs. He'd stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched, not understanding what was happening until it was too late.
Could he have saved her? What if he had leaped forward and let her land on his soft body? He should have tried. If only he had tried!
And now he couldn't save Mom Marie either. He was useless.
"I saw you! You flashed your leg to that guy."
"I did not, Hank! You just make this stuff up in your head."
"Don't you dare say that to me!"
Sammy shut his eyes. To calm himself, he went somewhere else in his mind. He thought about Mom Charlotte, of her soft gray hair, her twinkling eyes, and the love in her smile. He thought of the way she hugged him on the couch at night while she watched TV, about their long walks together. He loved it when she took him to the mountains to hike. His favorite thing, though, was the comforting weight of her against his back as Sammy snuggled up next to her in bed. That lovely, comfy bed! If only—
"There you are, you stupid dog!"
Sammy's eyes flew open. The Bad Man's face was hard and twisted as he looked under the bed. His beard was full and bristly, his eyes small and mean. He reached in and grabbed Sammy's collar, dragging him out. The collar choked Sammy and the dragging was so swift, one of his back legs got tangled. Sammy yelped.
As soon as he was out, he tried to get to his feet and run, but the man held his collar fast.
"Outside! Outside now!" He dragged Sammy toward the kitchen.
Sammy yelped again. He was in trouble. It was going to hurt.
"Hank, leave him alone, please!" Mom Marie's eyes were red, and Sammy sensed the bad feelings pouring off her.
"You want to be a bitch to me? Then your precious dog is not welcome in my house!"
"Hank, come on! I said I was sorry! Please!"
The Bad Man opened the back door and dragged Sammy into the yard.
Mommy. Mommy. Help me, Sammy thought, picturing Mom Charlotte. But she was gone and couldn't help him now.
It had snowed all day and the ground was covered with a heavy pelt of the white, cold stuff. It stuck to Sammy's fur as he was dragged through on his four paws.
The Bad Man snapped Sammy's collar to a chain on a tree. He often put Sammy out in the yard on the chain. Sammy loved the outside. He loved the soft, fragrant grass and the way the tall trees softened the sun. He loved trying to bite the wind. He loved watching birds and spiders and all sorts of wild things. He even loved the snow when it came down in thick, fluffy pads. But he loathed the chain. The chain pinned him in place and it was so boring. It was bad enough when the day was warm and gentle. But in the cold…
No, please. I'm sorry. I will stay under the bed. I promise. You won't even see me. Just please don't leave me here!
Mom Marie pleaded, but the Bad Man shoved her inside and shut the door.
Sammy was alone.
He shook all over, both from the cold outside and from a deeper cold inside. He wished to be back home with Mom Charlotte where every day was fun and safe and he was so so loved. He hadn't known then how lucky he was. He hadn't known then that life could be scary. And lonely. And sad. But worse of all was the guilt, the way his doggy heart beat with longing to help those he loved—in vain. He couldn't help anyone. He was a coward.
When it was clear no one was going to come out to let Sammy back into the house, he dug a hole in the snow with his paws, making a place to lie down. The chain didn't stretch far enough to let him crawl under the porch or huddle next the fence. At least here under the tree, the snow was less deep. He lay in the spot he'd made and tried to sleep, but he was too cold. When he couldn't stand it anymore, he got up and ran around the tree, around and around, first one way and then the other to unwrap the chain. When he got tired of that, he would lay back down again.
Inside him, in the space where his grief and guilt over Mom Charlotte lived, he still felt love, love, love. Love for Mom Charlotte, for Mom Marie, for the world. It was a love that was pure, and it shone hot despite everything. That stew of emotions created waves and currents, highs and lows, chemicals that washed through every cell of his body.
Sammy was getting smarter.
He could sense that he understood more and more of what the Bad Man and Mom Marie said, both the words and the meaning behind the words. Sammy's view was shifting, but he didn't know what to do with these new thoughts and feelings.
Get away, a calm voice in his head said. Run away. The next chance you get, watch for it and run. It isn't safe here. You can't stay.
But Mom Marie would be alone and in danger.
You can't help her. He's too strong. Run away. She wants you to. She hates it when Hank hurts you. Mom Charlotte would want you to run away too.
But even if Sammy could leave Mom Marie, where could he go? What would he do? Who would feed him? And how would he live being outside all the time when he hated being outside in the snow right now?
It was hopeless. Helplessness mixed with the stew of emotions down deep in his core. He lay on the frozen ground, or he paced. He thought. The cold grew worse, his body wracked with shivers. The night was endless.
But no one ever came.
Dawn took forever to arrive. Finally, the sky cracked open a pink eye, and there was movement inside the house. The Bad Man left early for work most days. Weekdays, supplied that new voice in Sammy's brain. They call them weekdays, and there are five in a row when he goes to work. This is a weekday, so he'll leave soon.
Sammy knew Mom Marie was up too. She always made the Bad Man food in the mornings. Sammy listened and waited. He'd gone numb, and his muscles had given up shivering. His head hung low.
The Bad Man's truck started up on the other side of the house and drove away. Mom Marie came rushing out the back door. She had an expression Sammy had never seen before. She took the chain off Sammy's collar, and when his legs could barely move, she picked him up and carried him inside.
On the kitchen rug, she rubbed Sammy with a big towel, waking up his frozen muscles. She gave him warm water to drink. He was so thirsty! She told him, her voice funny and choked, how sorry she was and how she wouldn't let Hank hurt him again. Gratitude swamped Sammy. He licked her face over and over.
Thank you for letting me inside. Thank you. Thank you. I'm sorry too. I'm sorry I wasn't brave enough to protect you. Sorry I couldn't stand up to him last night, didn't guard you but only hid. So sorry.
Mom Marie buried her face in Sammy's brown fur and cried deep, wrenching sobs. He didn't know what to do. He pawed at her side and licked her ear. He shuddered closer to her, offering his cold body as comfort. It was so lovely to be held. They sat that way for a while. As the warmth of the house sank into him, Sammy almost fell asleep.
Mom Marie pushed away and wiped at her face, her expression going hard. "Okay, Sammy. Okay."
She gave him a huge bowl of food—dog food with bits of steak and potatoes and bread on top. He never got such good food! While he ate she took a shower.
When she came back in the kitchen, she was dressed and held his leash. "Let's go, love."
There was something wrong with her voice, but Sammy didn't care. He was happy to go anywhere.
She put him in the car and drove him to a big gray building. Sammy didn't know what it was at first. He could see wire fences out back and there were the sounds and smells of lots of dogs. It wasn't a good smell. It was a desperate smell. And the building looked stark and unfriendly in the still, cold air.
Sammy didn't want to go inside. Mom Marie had to make him get out of the car and pull his leash to get him to the front door.
Before they went in, she knelt down in front of Sammy. She held his face and looked him right in the eyes. He licked her wet, salty face. Sorrow rolled off her in waves.
"I'm so sorry, baby, but you can't stay with me. He'll hurt you. And I promised Char I'd take care of you. You'll find a new home, one where you're pampered and get all the wonderful things you deserve. Okay, buddy? I'm so, so sorry. I love you, Sammy."
She wiped her face, almost angrily, and took Sammy inside.
* * *
That was how long they kept dogs at the pound. If, at the end of ninety days, Sammy had not been adopted, he would be "put to sleep." They meant forever-sleep, like Mom Charlotte after she'd fallen down the stairs. The body was left behind, but there was nothing in it. The idea scared him so much he couldn't think about it for long.
Sammy figured out about the ninety days from conversation he overheard and from the pity and sadness in the shelter workers when they came to take a dog out of its cage for the last time. Sammy was in a long row of cages. Each one had an inside part and a flap to a small outside part. The wire link walls were tall and strong. He had a pair of blankets for a bed, laid out on cold concrete. There were so many dogs, and so much noise, Sammy wished for a place to retreat, someplace like under-the-bed, where he could hide, but there was no place like that.
They gave him food and water twice a day, and they took him out on leash three times into a grassy area so he could pee and poop and walk a little. Otherwise, he was alone.
At first, Sammy didn't want to believe they put dogs to sleep. Mom Marie was trying to save him. She would never have brought him here to die! But Sammy's quickening brain wouldn't allow him to stay in denial for long. He couldn't pretend when he heard the staff talk about who was "going down" that day, when he saw the way the older dogs steadily disappeared. Mom Marie didn't know they did that here. I'm sure she didn't know. It was a cold comfort.
He had eighty days.
He had seventy days.
One day, a pretty girl came to get Sammy. She took him on leash to a room where he and five other dogs were looked over by a couple. The woman was about the same age as Mom Marie. She had yellow hair and was very thin. The man wore a cap in bright red that was turned backward on his head. He was big and strong, and his heavy boots reminded Sammy of the Bad Man.
Sammy was terrified and wouldn't go near the man in the red cap. The man tried to touch him a few times, talking in a soothing voice, but Sammy wanted nothing to do with him. No, no, no!
The couple took another dog home with them. Sammy was put back in his cage.
The new, smarter, voice in his head was upset. Why couldn't you act friendly? If you'd been nice and cute and playful, they might have picked you. If you stay here, you'll be put to sleep.
Sammy knew it was true. But when the fear overcame him, he couldn't control himself. He didn't want to go home with that man in the red cap. No!
Twice more, the shelter workers led Sammy out into a room to be looked over. And twice more, Sammy couldn't hide his fear of the men in the room. Twice more, he was put back in his cage. After that, they stopped coming for him.
One day, they brought a new dog down the aisle and put him in the cage across from Sammy. The new dog was about Sammy's height but fatter. He had long fur that was white and tan and black. He was full of energy and barked at the shelter handlers in an annoyed voice. Once the workers left, the dog paced the cage. Then he looked around and his gaze landed on Sammy.
Sammy went from mildly curious to alert in a heartbeat. He sat up, whined. There was something different in the dog's eyes, in the way he tilted his head. He looked so… so smart. Sammy pressed his nose against the wire, trying to smell. He caught a whiff of something—something new. Human-dog. Both at once.
Sammy barked excitedly.
The strange dog narrowed his eyes at Sammy and then… then he did something Sammy had never seen a dog to. Very deliberately, the strange dog shook his head. No. Not now. He winked at Sammy with one eye—winked—then went out to explore the outside part of his cage.
That night, Sammy was awoken by an urgent whisper. "Psst. Hey. Hey you, dog!"
Sammy opened his eyes. In the cage across from him was a man. A naked man. He was crouched inside the kennel in a way that was almost funny except that Sammy knew it meant something important. He was squatting down, his big human feet flat on the cage floor, his knees against the front cage wires, head almost at the top of the cage. And he was looking right at Sammy.
"That's right. Wake up!" the man said in a soft but urgent voice.
Sammy sat up at once. He barked.
"No, no!" The man motioned down with his hands. "Shhh! Be quiet!"
Sammy stopped barking, but he couldn't hold in an anxious whine.
"Okay." The man licked his lips and scratched at one ear. "You're quick, huh?"
Sammy panted. He didn't understand.
"You're like me. You can do this. Change into a man." He waved a hand at his body.
Sammy felt a flood of wonder and fear. The dog in the cage next door had turned into a man. It was crazy, yet it was exactly what Sammy had been feeling, wasn't it? The urge in his throat to speak, the overwhelming need to stretch his spine up and up, the need to stand! He put both paws on the cage door and whined.
"Ah. You're new, huh?" The man's face softened. "It's okay. We've all been there. Welp, if you can understand what I’m saying—and if my nose hasn’t lost its mojo yet—" He tapped the very large nose on his face. "—then you are like me."
He looked around as if to make sure no one was listening. But it was the middle of the night and there were only the other dogs. "It's called 'getting the spark.' Quickening. You're a quick. That means you can change from dog to man. And back again too. Cool, huh?"
His eyes were kind and bright. Sammy looked him over, studying every inch. He looked so real! So manlike! His hair was brown with white streaks, and it fell in messy waves to his shoulders. His eyes were bright blue, and he had a lot of hair on his chest and legs. But still, if Sammy didn't know better, he would think the strange dog-man was like any other human. And he talked and gestured and everything. It was amazing!
What would Sammy look like as a man? What would he feel like?
The thought was like grease on the stuck gears of his brain, and suddenly all his anxiety of the past few weeks, his fear, his nameless yearning, made sense. He wanted that. He wanted to do that, to be that so badly! His skin itched and his muscles trembled with tiny sparks of lightning. He shut his eyes, letting the sensations fall upon him, reached for them—
"No! Psst. Hey. Stop that. Stop it! For cripes’ sake."
Reluctantly, and with great effort, Sammy pushed the feelings down. It was like trying to hold back a sneeze, but he managed. He opened his eyes.
"Not here!" The dog-man looked around anxiously. "Sheesh! Not a good idea, my friend. Your first time will be hard and… and loud. We'd be discovered for sure! Rule number one: we can never let the humans know about us. Never. No matter what. We have to protect the pack. Understand?"
The dog-man's whisper was so fierce, so urgent, it made Sammy stop and think. If humans knew the dog they'd put in that cage opposite could become a man, what would they do? Sammy instinctively knew it wouldn't be good. Protect the pack. It was an ancestral memory as old as time, leading predators away from a nest of pups. Being willing to die to save them.
Sammy bent his head and whined submissively.
The dog-man nodded. "Good. Now listen, nod once for 'yes,' like this." He moved his head up and down. "And like this for 'no.'" He moved his head side to side. "Got it?"
With some effort, Sammy made his head nod.
"Okay." The dog-man let out a long sigh. "My name is Rex. That's spelled with an X! And you and me, we need to get out of here. Right?"
Sammy nodded with force. Yes! The dog-man, Rex, would know how to get out. This was great! Sammy was saved!
"Yeah, no sweat. I've been traveling around, trying to find new quicks like you. So I'm glad to meet you!" Rex's eyes brightened. "We'll get outta here and go north. Sound like a plan?"
Sammy pawed at the front of the cage. He wanted to leave right now.
"But first I gotta figure out how to open these doors." Rex's human fingers felt around the steel box on the door of his cage. "Damn thing needs a key, I think."
Sammy had seen the shelter workers open the cage doors lots of times. They used a card they wore around their neck. But Rex didn't have a card. Sammy watched him jiggle and press and feel around the box, but the door didn't open.
Sammy began to feel anxious. He whined.
"Nah, it's cool," Rex said. "We'll just, uh, wait for an opportunity. Right? They gotta open the doors sometime. Maybe when they come feed us. Or take us outside. I'll figure it out. No sweaterino. None at all."
Sammy growled low in his throat. He wanted to tell the dog-man he didn't have much time left!
"Don't be scared, bud. I've got your back." Rex smiled a toothy grin, but it didn't calm the fear spreading its wings again in Sammy's heart.
Rex settled back against the wall of the cage, his body going relaxed and limp. "Yeah, yeah. It'll be great! You'll see. It's the best thing ever, being quick. We'll head northwest to Mad Creek. That's a town in California. There's lots of us there. It's the greatest place to live in the whole world! There're trees and mountains and rabbits and a park with places to lie in the sun…. There's a diner that serves the best hamburger and french fries you can imagine—no joke! And everyone is so nice! They'll give you a place to live for free. You'll love it so hard. It's great, great, great! We'll go there soon as we get out. But just in case we get separated, here's how you can find it. Okay?"
Rex told Sammy how to find Mad Creek—about where the sun was in the mornings over big rivers and how the blue-green mountains would glow. He told Sammy about the smells you could follow on the way. Mad Creek was near a big park called Yo-sem-inny, and if Sammy got lost, he could use his human voice to ask directions. The very idea!
The town sounded like Heaven. Sammy wondered if such a place could really exist, but he wanted to believe it did. He fell asleep listening to Rex's word pictures of this special place, a place for dogs just like him, a place where he'd be safe and loved.
But when Sammy opened his eyes in the morning, Rex's cage was empty.