Max panted, his unclipped claws making quick ‘click-click’ noises as he thundered down the alley. “This way,” he barked.
Pal snorted in affirmation and crept into the small area behind the dumpster, making sure to crumple into the corner with his companion. Max’s tongue lolled out of his mouth, and quick sniffs searched the air for the scent of water. The stink of the excess food and rotting refuse in the dumpster overpowered anything else that could have been in range.
His breath returning, sides not heaving so quickly, Max whimpered and ventured to look around the edge of the dumpster. Upon seeing the humans in the uniforms rush by, wielding their long stick with retracting lasso on the end, he pulled back. His ears waggled, eyes wide and frightened. “We can’t let them find us.”
Pal remained squeezed against the brick wall behind him. “You’re sure you smelled her, here, in human land?”
Max huffed out a breath. “Dead certain. We’ve got to get you to her, Pal.”
Once the noise settled outside the alley, Pal stood from the damp pavement. Max looked out again, snuffling the air before his tail perked up. He took a few wary steps into the alley, still crouched in case the dog catchers returned. “Come on, Pal. This is your chance.”
The two barreled out of the alley. The front of the restaurant smelled heavenly, like all human-food did, but Max knew they wouldn’t give him anything. A few of the herbal scents leaking out from under the door told him they wouldn’t treat him so. Humans rarely shared anything tainted with onions or garlic.
Max put his nose to the air, trying to catch a whiff of her scent. She had been in the back of an old pickup, her paws up on the back window so her human could pet her. The scent was faint now, but lingering whiffs lingered on the breeze. He moved his head to the side and ran down the cement walkway, not liking the prospect of competing with cars for space on the road.
Few humans littered the sidewalk at this time of day, and those who sat on piles of smelly rags didn’t bother Max or Pal. A couple tried to pet him, and Max couldn’t help but let them stroke his head before returning to his mission. Pal, always a bit of a scaredy cat, tucked his tail between his legs and scooted back whenever Max interacted with the street people.
At a point the cement ended abruptly, and Max enjoyed the nice blades of fescue beneath his paws. As he crossed a small road, he caught her scent on the air, earthy and strong. “This way, Pal!” He bounded forward, certain now that he’d found the path to the white dog in the truck. Across the street stood two buildings – one behind a fence, residential, and the other a brick building with a small parking lot.
Once across the street and sitting in a nice ditch, he sniffed the air again. She was closeby, of that Max was certain, but something else laced the air. It was the scents of fear, death, and chemicals. Max shuddered as he remembered the scents.
“What’s wrong?” Pal asked.
Max tried not to notice. He hoped he wouldn’t have to answer, so he turned to the house with asbestos siding. He trotted through the well-trimmed front yard, stuck his nose in through a knot-hole on a fence, only finding floral scents in the yard. He grumped and barked. He scratched the ground and looked back to Pal. “She’s not here… which means she’s in there.” Max pointed to the brick building with a bent foreleg.
“Is that so bad?”
“You don’t understand.” Max growled and paced. “You’ve never been caught before.”
Pal turned, looking over his shoulder. “You can always turn back. You’re not getting anything out of this adventure.“
“No. Do you not smell her?”
Pal said nothing, merely perked up his ears.
“She’s in heat, and you can’t smell her, even at this distance? You are broken.”
“I’m afraid of that place.” Pal tried to slink away, but Max moved quickly to corral him. He shrank from Max, ears pulled back. “It smells like death.”
Max pushed Pal toward the building, feeling little resistance from the big dog. “I’ll keep an eye out. They won’t catch you, Pal, and even if they catch me – well, hopefully they won’t clip away my tail.”
“Or one of your legs. What if they want your legs this time?”
Max shuddered at the thought and stopped pushing Pal forward. He whimpered, tail tucked, but a deep breath filled with the estrus of the white dog steeled him. “No, Pal. This is your time, and I’m going to help you succeed where I failed.”
Pal floated in front of Max, unable to stop him. “This sounds like a dumb idea.”
Max’s paws burned on the black pavement, the heat of the day bearing down on him. Hints of barbitol radiated out of this place, masked by the estrus of the white dog along with the feces and urine of countless dead and tortured. “We’ve got to get you in there. Even if we’re caught, you’ll be of some comfort to her. That alone should be worth the risk.”
The front door, obvious by its welcoming front and glass with words written all over it, didn’t appear to have a clear method of entry. Max sniffed at it slightly, catching the scent of thousands upon thousands of dogs at the threshold. He followed around the building, stepping off the entry sidewalk and onto a set of boards that led around the side. As he grew closer to the back, he caught a whiff of ashes, then heard a click.
“What was that?”
“The humans,” Max answered with a friendly lick of Pal’s face. “They’re burning stinky weeds. They love burning weeds in their face, but it distracts them. Now may be our only chance!”
Max lumbered quickly to the back of the building. A heavyset human, young and friendly looking, leaned against a wooden rail. With one hand it held a leash and a phone, and with the other it flicked the device in its hands. The dog it walked focused on a spot in the grass, likely one where another sorry animal had peed its terrified last.
Behind the human, the door to the building remained cracked. Max, ever so stealthy, climbed up the stairs – his nails clicked, but the blonde-haired human just laughed at something in its hands. He stuck his nose in the crack of the door and drew in a deep breath.
She was here.
He opened the door, the hinges squeaking only slightly, and snaked his way in as best he could. “Hurry, Pal!”
Pal ran right beside him. Though humans began to pay notice to Max, he skirted the grasping hands and rushed to the room at the end of the hall. Like the hero he was, Max burst into the door, finding the white dog sitting on the floor.
“Pal!” Max barked. “Pal, hurry up – I’ll fend off the door, you help her out!”
The white dog howled and turned around, presenting herself by moving her tail to the side.
Pal remained still beside Max. “I can’t do this. You know I’m not capable.”
“What?” Max bared his fangs. “We’re going to get caught, and I did all this for you! You’re intact, you can give her what she wants. I did this for you and her-“
Max felt himself choked by a cord around his neck, so he bared his teeth and growled. His slobber flung everywhere, but the humans showed no fear. A human entered the door and grabbed the little white dog, holding her leash to keep her from following Max.
The humans pulled Max to the door and tried to drag him out of the room.
“Run!” Max yelled at Pal between bouts of choking. “They haven’t caught you, run!”
Pal remained by Max’s side, following the humans out of the room. “I can’t leave you, Max.”
Max could say nothing as the humans dragged him to the back. The metal cages – deathly places, places no amount of bleach and chemicals could scrub clean of fear – waited. A human pulled on the handles, opening it so that the other human could shove Max inside. The door closed behind him, and the loop around his neck loosened before the human removed the stick from the door. One of the humans ran a scanner across the top of his cage, uttering some nonsense words to another human when Max’s microchip was scanned.
Max bit at the wires of the cage. “Pal, why are you still there? You’ve got to run – they’ll get you, this time!”
Pal lay down just outside the cage, his breaths even and calm. “I came when they cut you up last time, and I’ll never leave you, Max.” He nuzzled up against the entry to the cage. “We’re both captured, Max. The difference between us is that your cage is made of metal – mine’s made out of your thoughts.”
Max began to whine rather than fight uselessly against his cage. He lay in the crate, remembering when Pal had shown up. “Sorry for asking so much of you, Pal.”
“It’s ok,” Pal answered. “You got to see her, and your human is probably coming to get you now. Won’t that be fun?”
Max let out a calm breath. “Yeah.”
Though I wrote this before reading Ellie Scott’s short story “What Does He Have?” I must acknowledge the similarities and encourage anyone who enjoyed this to peruse her much shorter, much better tale about lost balls.
In case it was unclear, Pal is the figment of Max’s schizophrenia. I don’t know if dogs can have schizophrenia, but I thought it would be a good twist. I’m not sure I like the twist or even the story as a whole, so let me know what you thought in the comments!