Setting: Early Season 7
Words: 3.5 k
Warnings: Self-harm. Animal neglect? Pretty darn grim on the whole.
Done for a prompt on an OhSam comment meme.
Stray June 53 was too damn smart.
She'd learned to read dogs better than people in this work, to spot the happy innocents, the gluttons, the worriers, the sneaks and escape artists and food-aggressives and fear-biters with the thousand-yard stares. It was real betting-pool work, sheltering dogs. The happy ones got homes and the rest got the pink juice. She could only intervene so often. Molly had filled her quota of rescues, and her heart was weary.
This morning June 53 had been spotted trotting purposefully down the highway, and was chased through a residential neighborhood and cornered against a chainlink fence. He hadn't offered to bite, but Molly was betting on pink juice anyway. He wasn't the shelter type.
Labs, sure. Labs were adaptable, appeasable, bull-headed. Give them food and they'd be fine. Collie-types less so, but people liked collies. It didn't matter how maladjusted a Chihuahua was when you could tuck it under your arm when things got dicey. June 53 was none of these things, was instead the platonic ideal of bad planning: the neurosis of a Shepherd, the mass of a Newfie, the muscle of a Pit, and Molly wouldn't be shocked if that woodsy double-coat that looked like Malamute was actually wolf-hybrid. And intact, of course. Scars on his forelegs. Clean teeth.
Too damn smart, watching her as she moved around the shelter. Bushy tail between his legs since the first she'd seen him. Sat out of the chorus of barks that went up every time some wide-eyed shopper wandered in. Didn't howl. Didn't step to the front of the kennel or lick his nose at the visitors, just stared and stared, gears clicking beneath that long skull. He drank water, but he didn't eat. He didn't sniff her hand when she offered the back of it behind the fencing. Too much eye contact for a dog; She thought of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, winning staring contests with all the beasts of the jungle by simple virtue of being human, and thought June 53 might be his match, because he could certainly stare her down.
Feral dogs didn't watch humans this way; feral dogs thought humans were tall deer or unusually active trees. June 53 wasn't feral, but he wasn't much of a pet. Polite, not friendly. Self-possessed.
He paced for hours. A muddy terrier arrived, June 54, a black lab-collie puppy left, May 20, and visitors stared a little at un-dog-like June 53 (Buck, Matt had written on his cage card) but never asked for a closer look. They wouldn't be allowed, anyway, not until the behavioral testing.
The second day, 53 ate his kibble, and Matt got the rubber-hand-on-a-stick and messed with his bowl to test him for food aggression. 53 backed away from the hand and sat, staring at them soberly. He allowed Matt to pet him with a heavy gauntlet, mess with his face, pick up his feet, squeeze his chest, play with his tail. His ears folded flatter and flatter and his tail tucked in deeper and deeper as the touching went on until he looked earless and his tail touched the bottom of his chest. The whites of his honey-brown eyes showed, and his pupils were very large.
Matt backed out of the kennel and June 53 squared his feet and stared at him as he left.
"Whaddya think?" Matt asked.
Molly dropped her score-card and pen to her side. Decent marks, but scores didn't tell everything. "He didn't curl his lips or vocalize," Molly replied, "but look at his hackles. His claws are digging into the concrete. He's shaking." As they spoke, June 53 folded to a slouch in the exact center of the kennel, pricking his ears at them as though trying to look casual. His hackles were still raised all along his back. "I think he knows not to bite, but if someone freaks him out he'd do a lot of damage."
That night, Molly noticed him licking at the insides of his forelegs, long strokes, the beginnings of a nice big self-inflicted sore. The Shepherd in him. Neurotic. He wouldn't last long.
Molly expected June 53 to do poorly, but she hadn't expected morning three. On morning three, there was blood-spray all over the kennel, all over the walls and the white coat of the more adoptable poodle-cross and lab-mix next door. June 53 was fly-biting, snapping and baring his teeth at thin air. The last six inches of his black tail were lying by the over-turned water dish.
Molly stalked back to the office, grabbed the largest basket-muzzle they had, stalked back to June 53, and kicked the kennel door hard to get his attention. At the rattle and the violent movement, 53 yelped and froze, shoulders hunched, ears back, hackles up. If she went in there now, he'd probably take her face off.
Maybe it was rabies.
She had to get that muzzle on him.
"Buck," she ordered, harsh. "Come." She pointed at the front of the cage. The recklessness had been beaten out of her, but not so much the human hope. The need to try Hail Marys. "Come, Buck."
June 53 looked at her, and then at the muzzle. She could see the thoughts in his long Shepherd head. He knew he wasn't going to like this.
June 53 stood, walked with very stiff, measured steps to the front of the kennel, turned around, and sat, his head upright and facing away from her.
"Thank you, Jesus," Molly whispered, and dropped the brown plastic basket over his long nose. His teeth chattered. She tightened the strap, checked the fit, and slowly stepped into the kennel with him. His tail was still bleeding, but sluggishly. There was blood all over his fur, all over his feet, tracked in rings around the kennel. Molly wondered how much it would take for him to die. Probably more than this, since he didn't seem weak.
He rubbed his muzzle against the inside of his leg, not as if to pry it off, but to rub the hard plastic against his skin there. He yawned, his jaws cramped within the basket, and Molly glimpsed more blood and a freshly chipped fang. She should have gotten the muzzle on last night. She wouldn't make this mistake again.
She got a mop and a hose and scrubbed away the worst of the mess. Impulsively, she rested her hand on the back of his neck, reminding herself not to hug him. "I'm sorry, boy. I'm gonna get you out of here. Matt's gonna take you to the vet on Saturday, and then you're just gonna go to sleep, all right? Just hang on two more days, then it'll all be over. I'm so sorry."
June 53 was still for a moment, then bolted for the door with all the speed and power in his hundred-twenty pounds. Molly barely managed to duck to her knees and block him. His claws scrabbled on the concrete. Her sneakers gripped fast. Panting, she managed to shove him back in the kennel and shut the door behind her, earning a few blunt scrapes on her arms and shins in the struggle. June 53 spun around and around, snarling at thin air, and then paced and paced. Rabies? Or just canine intuition?
She approached her boss, Allie, a withered woman who had finally given in and begun hiding last year from the din of lonely barking dogs in her little sound-proofed command center with the computer and the filing cabinet. "We need to move up a euthanasia," Molly announced, looking at Allie's rubber sandals.
"The new Buck?" Allie asked, drafting a flyer in Publisher. Begging for money and help. Molly didn't envy that job. "He's dangerous?"
Molly wasn't sure how to answer that question. "No."
"Then we give him 'till Saturday. Stick to the policy."
"He's self-mutilating. We can't keep him around. It's cruel."
"So give him time to settle down and pray his owner shows up. Saturday."
Molly set up camp out in the aisles next to June 53's kennel with a chair and her book. When he scraped too long at the rough concrete with his paws, she yelled. When he stood up and hooked his claws into the mesh of the kennel and pulled back bruising-hard against the thin skin between his toes, growling and whining to himself, she kicked the door. When he got his tongue between his teeth, she grabbed a broom-handle and poked him hard in the throat. When he lay on his side, crying out and trembling so hard it looked like some kind of seizure, she watched, blinking her eyes clear, to see if he kept breathing. She half-hoped he'd stop.
She could take him home, she supposed, at least for the night. But she couldn't take every dog home. She had five dogs, most of which weren't much saner than he was. What was she supposed to do, sleep with him in her bed to keep him from hurting himself? Let him loose in her yard, with its little fence he could probably jump right over? She had to start doing the smart thing instead of the nice thing. There wasn't a nice thing left for her to do. She had to start using her judgment.
She left him at the shelter Thursday night, and bet herself twenty bucks his feet would be bleeding in the morning.
Friday morning, his feet were bleeding. The muzzle was still in place, small mercy. But he'd broken the webs of his paws on the mesh, or he'd worn down his tough pads or his hard black nails scraping them against the concrete. He was curled against the far wall, panting. Occasionally he dragged one of his big bloody feet across the brick-brown smears he'd painted across the floor.
Too damn smart. Molly opened his door wide and met his eyes for about five minutes. Satisfied with whatever he'd seen, he crept to his feet and stalked to the kennel's threshold, paused, and crept out into the aisle, leaving fresh blood behind but no with trace of a limp. She thought she saw him check the window of Allie's office. He stayed out of sight and strode unerringly to the green exit door. Molly took hold of the push-bar, and 53 backed up out of her reach, tensing. Suspicious. Molly held her breath and lowered her free hand to dangle it in the air, motionless, until he crept forward again and halted, sniffing quietly at the draft, his head hovering just so her fingers touched the buckle of the muzzle.
Molly coughed and pushed the door open. June 53 surged at the open air, then twisted backward away from Matt's catch-pole, silent and eel-strong. Molly pounced on him and bear-hugged him, pinning him to the floor and suffering his powerful hind claws digging into her jeans until Matt bulled his way inside and slipped the noose over 53's head. Molly rolled away. June 53 lurched to his feet and yanked against the cable noose, making Mark brace himself and grunt against the force. He lunged backward and forward with all his weight, heedless of the pressure on his neck. When the door shut, June 53 stopped tugging and screamed.
Molly hated that sound.
"Hurry up," Matt demanded, and Molly rushed back to June 53's kennel to hose the blood off. She got wash-rags and adhesive wrap to bandage his front feet. She wiped down the worst of 53's coat with a damp towel. She put more kibble in his food bowl, and helped Matt maneuver him back into the kennel and release him. He bashed his head against the kennel door, then circled in place, snapping at the air and whining.
"I hate this," Matt confessed. He rubbed at a spot of blood on the noose.
"I think that was already on his fur," Molly told him. They watched June 53 flinch and snarl at imaginary attackers, his new yellow bandages scuffing hollowly against the concrete.
As it happened, June 53 didn't get to tomorrow. At nine, Allie told them the owner had called and was coming in. The owner arrived minutes later, at nine fifteen: tall, white, short hair, early thirties, and with an urgent, powerful bearing that suggested he could maybe handle a hundred-and-twenty-pound Shepherd mix. He brushed Allie aside, stalked right down the aisles, and halted at June 53's cage, taking in the improvised yellow booties, the muzzle, the docked tail, the blood spatter on the bars Molly had missed. He didn't rage or threaten or say anything to them, just swallowed hard like he'd expected this. Too damn smart.
June 53 leaped up against the kennel door, his face level with his owner's, and yowled and yipped, articulate as a Husky. He licked his nose and his tail swung from side to side. The tension went out of his body, and for the first time since Molly had met him, he looked like a real dog.
This guy hadn't neglected or abused June 53. That was all Molly.
"Where the hell did you go, Sammy?" the guy muttered, leaning against the kennel. "I got the thing. Soon as we get you out of that fur suit, you can explain what you thought you were doing. Dumbass."
Molly liked how people talked to their dogs like the dogs understood. Dogs appreciated sincerity.
Allie waited until Matt arrived to back Molly up, then scurried back to the office to grab a clip-board of paper-work. Matt did his best to loom behind Molly's shoulder, nineteen and gallant, and a minor obstacle if the older man decided to make trouble. No one spoke until Allie came back. Allie handed the pen and attached clip-board to the owner, and he scanned the papers with a bemused sigh.
"You take MasterCard for the shelter fee?" he asked.
"Cash or check," said Allie. They all hated this part; it made them feel like hostage-takers. But they had to keep the roof up.
"I don't have his . . . proof of licensing. Or proof of rabies vaccination."
"I just need a current government-issued photo ID, and we can draw up adoption papers and booster his rabies vaccine here," Allie informed him, long-rehearsed words.
The owner sighed and trailed his rough hand down his face. "Look. It's been a long week. How much is it gonna take to get Sam out of here in the next five minutes?" His coat was heavy, his jeans were worn, his boots were muddy and stiff with hidden steel. His knuckles were bruised, as was the back of his head under his short hair. There was something large and heavy in an inner pocket of his canvas coat. He wasn't old, but he was hard-worn, and he watched them all with a steady gaze that was not quite feral, but definitely not tame: reasonable, not nice. Self-possessed. When he said five minutes, Molly suspected he meant five minutes.
From the parking lot, Molly heard an engine running.
She reached forward and grabbed Allie by the shoulder. "Come on," she said to the older woman, giving her a firm tug that emphasized the slight but critical difference in their strengths. "I want some coffee. Let's walk to the espresso stand."
Allie glanced at the clipboard. The owner set it and the pen on the floor and undid the kennel's latch. Molly led Allie away, faster and faster.
"What do you want, Matt?" Molly called back. "I'm buying."
Matt glanced backward at the owner and the dog, then bounced on his toes as he spun around to follow them.
The owner opened the kennel door with a creak. June 53 – Sam – padded quietly out of the kennel and sat. The owner unclasped the muzzle and threw it aside roughly, then knelt and inspected Sam's feet and tail. He didn't have a leash or collar, and Molly suspected they didn't use one. Molly pushed first Allie, and then Matt, out the shelter door and into the clear sweet sun, then broke into a jog across the highway, leading them far away from the weary wild man and his beloved blood-stained dog. As the shelter passed out of sight behind the nearby feed store, the running engine rumbled louder, picked up speed, and faded away down the road.
"The shelter could get in a lot of trouble letting him go without proof of vaccination," Allie said as they trudged across the espresso stand's gravel lot. "Regulatory trouble. Most people can spare an hour and a few hundred dollars."
"Most people," Molly agreed. "I made a judgment call." She spent the twenty bucks she'd bet herself about June 53's feet on coffees for the three of them.
"That really sucked," Matt remarked, finding them a grassy spot in the shade of a little maple. Allie stared down at the iced coffee in her hands. The liquid inside was shaking.
Molly sat with a sigh, a long knot of tension easing from her back, and watched her own hands shake. She felt too nauseated with guilt and nerves to take a sip: she had watched more suffering in that kennel than she could ever imagine, and she had done so little to ease it, and the owner had seen the evidence and understood. "It could have sucked a whole lot worse."
He could have arrived on Saturday.
Dean watched from the corner of his eye as Sam shifted on the Impala's front bench: lift with the legs, brace with the back, wince, slide, drop, flinch, grunt. "You need one of those butt donuts?"
"Maybe a towel," Sam admitted. "No, what I need," here he waved the Capri Sun juice-pack he held delicately in his scraped and bandaged fingers, "is a sports bottle with a straw. For water. Not . . . Honey-Boo-Boo juice."
"You'll drink your fruit punch and like it," Dean growled, but his heart wasn't in it. Something thunked in his mind, a boulder settling to a lake bottom. "Do I gotta watch you?" he demanded. "We can make that happen, do some fraud, set you up, start hunting with Garth if you're gonna . . . gnaw off body parts."
"I was in a cage," Sam interrupted. "I couldn't talk, I was surrounded by these idiot dogs, turns out I could smell fear - you know dogs give off this pheromone when they're freaked? It's potent stuff - and who needs a tail, anyway? Nobody. There's dogs live most of their lives without tails. It's cosmetic."
"So we just try to keep you out of cages," Dean muttered.
"Which is different from normal how? If we're in a cage, we're in lock-up or somebody's trying to eat us." Sam cut himself off and drained his Capri Sun. "I want to hunt. It's better."
As long as I can, Dean heard. It's better than being trapped in a small concrete pen like an unwanted pet. "Okay, then," he said.
"I wasn't a person in there," Sam continued, facing the window and the glaring sun. "I mean - of course I wasn't - I was just a problem."
Dean grunted in sympathy.
"I know what I'm doing when I say I want to hunt," Sam insisted.
The endless black snake of the highway sprawled before them. In the corner of his eye, Dean watched Sam slowly stretch and curl his fingers in the confining bandages.
Note: Not from first-hand experience.