Tied up by her collar at the fire escape on the lowest floor of a New York apartment, a scrawny pup sat staring into space. It was not too shabby a place, this apartment, and looking at it one imagined that the residents must be fairly well off. The pup looked a little out of place, as she was distinctly scruffy. She was small but gangly, a mess of long brown fur framing her delicate face. She was a mix of saluki and Afghan hound, which showed in her fine features and slender build. The little hound, who had been given the name Rita by her mother's masters, was slumped against the railing, feeling bored, miserable and frustrated. Several of her littermates had already gone onto new homes, but for the remaining puppies, life had gotten tense and stressful recently. Rita was presently serving a time-out for rowdy behaviour, which her tired mother had been in no mood for. It was actually a relief to be away from her sisters; they'd been fighting almost constantly since the last time they'd been rejected by potential buyers. That she was the one serving a time-out struck Rita as being most unfair; it wasn't her fault that she was made an outsider by her own siblings. A pup had to fight for herself if no one else would take her side. She gazed longingly through the bars; had she not been tied up she could have quite comfortably slipped through them. Rita wondered, as she often seemed to find herself doing these days, if there really was any hope of a future left for her. Looking back at the door, she knew that her chances were fading past. It was hard enough for any mixed breed pup from an unwanted litter to secure a decent home, and as the weeks went on and her 'cute puppy' looks began to fade, it would only get worse. It could not be long, she told herself, before the masters would simply give up on finding homes for the puppies and wash their hands of them… and what would become of her then?
Rita sighed miserably. As she turned around to look out into the street, she was startled by two approaching canine figures. She watched their interactions with great interest; it made a pleasant change from just staring into nothing. One of them was enormous and lanky, surely the biggest dog she'd ever seen. He had a grey coat and jowls that wobbled as he moved. The other was obviously just a young pup, tiny next to his companion. The puppy had a roughness to him; probably a mutt and almost certainly with a lot of terrier in him. Despite his small size, the strange pup somehow drew attention to himself effortlessly, and by the smug look on his face it appeared that he was well aware of it. Rita cocked her head, straining to hear them speak, and watching with insatiable curiosity.
"Shhh! Be cool Einstein!" said the smaller dog said under his breath, and he strutted nearer, making eyes at Rita who continued to stare.
While Rita was not impressed by the he-pup's flirtatious advances, she welcomed the attention which broke up the monotony of her time-out. She looked around to make sure no one, especially not her mother, was watching before leaning further through the bars. "Who are you?" she asked with a slight growl. Having been told time and time again that street dogs were to be avoided like the plague, she didn't want to portray herself as someone these strangers could easily take advantage of.
"I'm Ein-", the large grey dog started cheerfully, only to be cut off.
"They call me Dodger", the puppy said smoothly, cutting across Einstein, his companion, "and who are you darlin'?" He was not about put off by the fact that it didn't look like the other pup was remotely interested in his attempt to woo her. It wasn't often he came around puppies his own age, and certainly not as pretty as this one; it would be foolish for him not to try and get a reaction out of her.
"My name's Rita" she replied warily.
"Well Rita, you're in luck, 'cause I'm about to sweep you off your paws!"
It had taken a great deal of effort for Rita not to laugh at the sheer nerve of the cocky little pup, but still, her mind worked quickly to take advantage of the opportunity he represented. There was a whole world out there that she was missing out on- who knew what fun and adventure she could find for herself out in the big city?
"The question is," Rita started, "can you get me out of this collar? I can't go anywhere with you unless you do," She put in a little flutter of her eyelashes for good measure, certain that this Dodger kid would eat that rubbish up. He seemed eager to impress, so he might as well do her a real favour.
Dodger considered this for a moment.
"Can you get me up there, Einy?" he asked, and allowed Einstein to toss him up onto the fire escape. He landed with a thud, but it got the job done- one of the perks of having such a large friend. He shook his little body to right himself, and then quickly reverted to strutting around like some arrogant peacock.
Again, Rita looked around to make sure they weren't being observed, and then allowed Dodger to approach to try and get her collar off. After a couple of minutes of fiddling with the buckle in his teeth, the collar came undone and Rita managed to slip out of it.
The second she was free, Rita jumped down from the fire escape with little concern for the extent of the drop. Jarring her forepaws as she hit the pavement, she stumbled, but shook herself and ran off into the streets without so much as a look back. She was in no hurry to deal with the advances of some stupid little mutt with an overinflated opinion of himself.
"Damn it, Einy!" Dodger cried, "You musta put her off!"
Einstein lowered his head in shame, his ears drooping. "Sorry, Dodger."
A little while later, Rita was beginning to regret running off so fast. She was at a loss of where to go and what to do, having never been out in the city on her own before. The extent of her experience beyond the apartment was short strolls she'd taken by the side of her mother and human masters, and then she was leashed and controlled. Making decisions for herself had never really been necessary. As she carried on walking, going nowhere in particular, Rita was becoming hungry, and realised that she had no real idea of how and where to get herself something to eat. It occurred to her that it would have done her well to try and get the little show-off, Dodger, to bring her something tasty. Too late for that now… she'd just have to work it out for herself.
Thankfully, the city was filled with many interesting scents and Rita's nose soon led her to a cafe where several people were eating out in the sunshine. Feeling somewhat reckless, Rita watched as one of the diners looked down to pick up a fork that they'd dropped. Seeing her opportunity and taking it, she rushed in, jumped onto the table and grabbed the remaining half of the man's pizza before making a quick escape.
Einstein and Dodger had been looking for their own lunch nearby when Rita dashed around the corner and straight into an unsuspecting Dodger. They collided with a crash, and food went all over them both.
"You!" Dodger exclaimed, not very happy as his face was now covered in mess. Scowling, he hastily moved out of the way as Einstein made an effort to lick the food off him.
"Sorry about that, do you want some?" Rita asked as she picked up the bits of pizza that hadn't been splattered over the other pup. She stifled a laugh at the indignation on the other pup's face.
"Really?" Einstein excitedly took quite a large amount on which he chewed contentedly. "Thanks, you're the best!"
Dodger's pride had been rather bruised by Rita's running off and then covering him with her lunch, but hunger got the better of him and, still pulling a face reminiscent of if he were sucking a lemon, he tucked in. There was still the chance that his advances might pay off in the end, and he made up his mind to carry on where he left of with Rita at her apartment building. "I think you already gave me some," he said, managing a smile as wiped some of the mess from his face with his foreleg. "Where'd ya get it?"
"That cafe over there," Rita said turning back around the corner. "See that guy throwing a tantrum like a month-old pup? He was the previous owner of our meal." She grinned proudly, as Dodger tried not to look impressed. Now that the mutt pup had been taken down a peg or two, Rita was glad of the company. With her sisters treating her like dirt, it would be a pleasant change to have a kid around who she could actually have fun with. It wasn't as if she knew what to do out in the city on her own anyway. "Can I hang out with you guys for a while? You could maybe show me around."
Dodger was unable to resist an opportunity to show off. If there was one thing he loved, it was playing to a crowd- and this crowd happened to be a pretty girl. "Sure," he replied, "I'm just the pup to be your guide- I'll teach you everything you need to know. Trust me, I know this city like the back of my paw."
"I can help!" Einstein piped up, his tail wagging.
"Hang on, maybe you could just go off and do your own thing, I won't be out in the city on my own if I'm with Rita." Dodger asked, sensing an opportunity to get rid of his babysitter. As much as he loved his big friend, Einstein did have a tendency to cramp his style, and now he had a brand new friend to impress.
"I think Fagin wanted someone older than you to keep you safe," Einstein replied after thinking very hard for a moment. This babysitting business seemed to be getting more and more complicated as Dodger grew up; the pup certainly had a mind of his own, and Einstein never knew quite what to do with him. Life would be so much easier if he could just be a regular old playmate, free from the responsibility side of things.
"How old are you Rita?" Dodger asked hopefully. He was young enough of a pup that the odds were in his favour. In the worst case, he could always make out that Einstein was remembering his own age wrong; the big guy was gullible enough that he'd fall for it.
"Ten weeks," Rita replied. "Ten weeks and four days."
"Ha! About two weeks older- that counts!" Dodger exclaimed, bouncing in excitement. It looked as though he'd be free to run wild around the city with just this pretty little pup for company.
"I guess so! See you kids later!" said Einstein as he bounded off, relieved of his puppy-sitting duties. It was hard work keeping the mischievous pup safe, and he was perfectly happy to take advantage of the opportunity for an afternoon off.
The two pups spent the whole afternoon together, and Dodger had found Rita to be a very good pupil, as she quickly got the hang of getting around the city. She didn't have a whole lot of traffic sense, and every now and then would dart into the road without so much as a glance. Dodger figured that was something she'd improve on with experience, if she didn't go and get herself run over first. He showed her how to move on top of the cars, and very soon she was following close behind him as he manoeuvred the busy streets. Dodger was very impressed with how quickly Rita could move. It was something that came with being a sighthound, and once she realised that there was very little to it there was no stopping her. Her long legs were ungainly, and she was frequently falling over herself in her enthusiasm to keep up with her streetwise friend. The two pups ended up spending a lot of time playing tag- running through the crowds, darting under vehicles and skidding around on their roofs. For a couple of kids, the city was one giant playground. Between their wild games, Dodger was happy to show off his talent for relieving city-goers of their possessions. Being just a small pup, he was limited in what he could reach; but managed to pull out a few bits and bobs from briefly unattended shopping bags and the backs of strollers. Once Rita got over her initial uneasiness about stealing, she was soon following his lead, though she shuddered to think what her mother would say if she knew. Admittedly, though, it was thrilling, and she felt a certain pride in finding herself genuinely good at something- even if that skill was in petty larceny. The hours slipped by, and despite her earlier reluctance, Rita had found Dodger to be a great companion, and with him she had more fun than she'd had in a long time. Perhaps, she thought, she'd finally found a real friend.
As the sky started to darken, Rita became very aware that she'd surely be missed by now, especially by her mother. She turned to head home, much to Dodger's disappointment as he had enjoyed having another pup to hang around with for a change.
"I gotta go Dodge," she said sadly. "My mom's going to be pretty mad. If you come back tomorrow I might be able to come and play with you again though. I had a whole lotta fun."
"Okay, I'll see ya then!" Dodger said feeling more cheerful. He'd been a singleton, with neither of his siblings having even survived to take a first breath; and fun though Einstein was, he wasn't another kid.
Rita grinned. Buoyed by the knowledge that this scruffy pup had genuinely enjoyed her company. For the lonely child that she was, it meant a great deal. "Yeah, see ya tomorrow."
As the puppies went their separate ways, Rita felt uncharacteristically happy. She was not in the least bit looking forward to being lectured her mother, but spending time with Dodger had lifted her spirits immensely, and she had no doubt that it would all be worth any trouble that came later. Somehow, she'd felt more at home with Dodger on the streets than she ever had with her family in the apartment, and in the face of all her uncertainty, that was something to hang on to.