Pick of the Litter
"I've been thinking," David declared one afternoon over lunch with Killian.
"Hmmm...dangerous pursuit, that," Killian drawled.
Ignoring his friend's jibe, David continued, pointing at him with a drumstick. "You work too much. You need a reason to get out of the office more often."
"I'm out of the office right now," Killian pointed out, waving his roll at the crowded restaurant they were eating in.
"Yeah, after we rescheduled about a dozen times because you were too busy working. Nope, my friend, you need some companionship. Some incentive to leave your desk."
Looking up at David over a half a rack of barbecued ribs, Killian asked, "Do I now?"
David nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. You do. I love hanging out with you, man, but I can only take so many more conversations about shuffling boats around the harbor. It's like listening to someone explain a game of 'Battleship!' without the fake explosions or anything sinking." He leaned back in his seat and gave Killian his best salesman impression, cheesy grin and all. "Lucky for you, I can help. I've got just the answer to your problem."
Licking the tangy sauce off his fingers, Killian contemplated his friend with half a smile. "Would this 'answer' be of the two- or four-legged sort?"
David shrugged and asked around a mouthful of fried chicken, "Does it matter?"
Killian laughed, "Just a little, mate."
"Why don't you come to the shelter this weekend? You can find out for yourself. I'm not asking you to commit to anything. Just the possibility of something," David suggested.
Shaking his head and wiping his hands on a wet-nap, Killian said, "If it will ease your conscience as to my well-being, I'll stop by on Saturday and consider your vague proposal."
"Excellent! You won't regret it," David exclaimed with a satisfied grin.
Saturday morning was bright and cloudless with a hint of warmth Killian always looked forward to feeling at the beginning of each Spring. The less-than-chilly morning meant sailing weather was on the horizon, and Killian ached to get back to the water and reclaim the calmness and belonging he only seemed to capture when at sea. The Winter had been tedious, and filled with tv shows half-watched and a stack of books he could barely finish a page of without dozing off. He was restless to say the least.
Killian would never give David the satisfaction of knowing he agreed with him—that he was in danger of becoming a workaholic—or that indulging his friend was a welcome reprieve from that path of endless meetings and paperwork. David was more mother hen than his older brother, Liam, had been, and he just didn't want to worry the man when he had his own life to attend to, so he feigned reluctance and pretended to humor David, when, really, he was grateful for the concern and attention.
Once Killian had finished physical therapy on his damaged and scarred hand last summer after a few years of hard work getting close to something he considered "better," he'd thrown himself into his new position as harbormaster, and when he wasn't working extra hours in the office and the weather was fair, he was restoring his boat, the newly christened Jolly Roger. The boat was near finished, and as much as he didn't care to contemplate the next long stretch of winter months, he did not want a repeat of this last dark season.
For all that he was "busy," he wasn't particularly social beyond the occasional meal with David, or their monthly poker game with the other public office lads. He still wasn't ready to date again, but coming home to an empty house every night was getting old, as were the incessant thoughts in his head about the night Milah died. The images from that horrific night, along with the myriad of what ifs (what if he'd come home earlier...what if he never confronted her killer...what if, what if), had worn a groove into his brain so deep it felt like a chasm he just couldn't bridge. He didn't know how long he could continue to sustain all the guilt he felt over her loss, but he also didn't know how to stop the feeling from keeping its grip on him. Maybe David had the right idea. Some companionship might be in order to take his mind off his grief and break his bad habits before it was too late.
When Killian entered the lobby of the shelter, David was behind the counter, talking to a couple of the volunteers, giving them a rundown of what chores needed to get done and which dogs should be walked first. When he saw Killian, he waved him over and then finished his conversation, sending the two young women off on their tasks. Turning a sunny smile on his friend with a "Right this way!," David ushered Killian through the double-doors that led to the offices, training area, and kennels for the dogs not yet ready to be adopted. David passed those sections and opened a door into a cozy room, currently home to a Chocolate Lab and her litter of six pups: two each of chocolate, yellow, and black, all of them wearing a blue or pink collar depending on their sex.
David hunkered down and ran his hand over the mom's head and neck with a gentle touch that she leaned into with relief. They'd obviously spent quite a bit of time together over the past few months, and Killian felt a twinge of longing at the unmistakable trust the dog felt toward David. He envied his friend that natural gift he had to put others—even dogs—at ease and make them feel safe. After Milah, Killian wasn't sure he'd be able to keep a plant safe, but he thought maybe he was ready to try again.
"Meet Charis," David said brightly, as she stretched her head up to lick his chin, and he leaned down to meet her halfway. "This sweet girl was dropped off here at the shelter, pregnant, by owners who were not prepared for her impending motherhood," he explained.
"Then why didn't they—"
"Have her spayed? That is the $10,000 question we ask more often than you can imagine," David sighed, cutting Killian's question off. Defeat was the underlying tone in his voice, but he continued to smile at Charis who was watching her pups climb and tumble over each other and herself. Killian watched them as well, unable to suppress a grin watching their antics. A few of the dogs took note of him and David, while others seemed completely oblivious to them, no doubt used to regular people traffic in and out of the room.
"So which of these rambunctious, balls of fur are you thinking I need to liven me up?" Killian asked nodding toward the tumult of dark, medium, and light-shaded canines rolling over the thickly blanketed floor.
David stood up next to him and shook his head. "Far be it from me to lead that decision. I have an idea which one could be a good fit, but it's ultimately up to you. They will be ready to separate from Charis in the next week, and before I let all these babies get snatched up by the general public, I wanted to give you first dibs. One of the few perks of being the director here, so I might as well take advantage."
Killian knelt down and was immediately overrun by the curious pack of dogs. One of the chocolates remained asleep near the warmth of his mother, but the two yellows (both boys) and the other chocolate (a girl) tumbled all over each other in their race to meet the new stranger, and the male, black pup trotted around his litter mates and began climbing up onto Killian's lap, sniffing the whole way. The other Black Lab caught his attention because she sat observing them all, thoughtfully, from just outside the ruckus. Killian was taken with the seriousness of her gaze and wondered if he was passing muster with the furry girl. In a way, hoped he did, if only to avoid David hassling him for being shunned by a puppy. Once he petted each of the round balls of fluff at his feet, they lost interest in him and bounded off, playing with each other and butting into their mother who licked the top of their heads or nudged them away with her nose, depending on how irritating they were to her. Amazed at the utter chaos six puppies could create, Killian was distracted—watching them as if it were the Puppy Bowl on tv. Killian noticed a weight he hadn't felt a moment ago against his leg, and when he looked down, the other Black Lab who had been watching him, was leaning against his leg. Apparently she approved of him after all.
"Oh! Hello, lass," he said, squatting down again to pet her downy, dark coat. He looked up at David, raising his eyebrows in question, and David nodded.
Killian gently picked up the puppy and held her to his shoulder, petting her the whole time. She settled quickly against him, her head resting on his shoulder and a gentle heat radiating through that pink belly of hers right into his own chest. He sensed something shift in him, uncovering a part of himself he'd long thought had hardened and become useless. But, no, there it was, starting to warm up again and beat of its own accord.
"What's her name?" he asked, rubbing her silky ears between his fingers.
David chuckled. "I'm not allowed to name the puppies anymore. I get too attached and then I'm a wreck when they get adopted. Plus, Mary Margaret has forbidden me to bring any home this time. So she's 'Black Lab Number 1.'"
Killian held her out in front of his face and smiled at her. "Beautiful lass such as yourself deserves something better, don't you think, love?" The pup licked his nose a couple of times before he put her back on the ground, and she scampered off to play with her siblings, stealing a tennis ball out from under the curious nose of her yellow brother.
"So," David began, "feeling any...possibilities?"
"Perhaps," Killian answered, distracted as he watched the little family. "I need to think about it."
David clapped him on the shoulder, a knowing smile on his lips. "Of course, of course. It's a big decision. Why don't you stop by again over the next couple of days and see which one picks you."
"Aye," Killian said as he took one last look at the pups, the little one he had picked up looking back at him as she gnawed on the stolen tennis ball, which was almost as big as her head. Her thin tail swayed as he smiled at her.
Killian spent Sunday contemplating the idea of life with a dog. He'd never had one before, given he and Liam were barely old enough to take care of themselves properly, and then being in the Navy left no time whatsoever for responsibilities outside his obligations to his unit. Even with Milah, the opportunity never arose where they felt they could take care of a dog or cat. And then once Milah was gone, well, he just didn't have the heart to care about anyone or anything else. Everyday was about survival, which was something he excelled at, but very little about actually living. But now living, for a change, sounded less scary than it had in years.
Not wanting to do wrong by any life he would consequently be responsible for, Killian set about writing down all the questions he had about raising a dog from a puppy, and how it would work with his current lifestyle. He spent some time online looking up advice on various topics and tallying up what he might need for supplies, all so he could run it by David to make sure he wasn't being excessive. His biggest concern was what to do with the dog while he was at work. He could easily have a regular 8-hour work day—his overtime was his own choice, not something required—but that was still several hours of time alone for an animal not built to be alone. It concerned him greatly, given that loneliness was something he was intimate with and was starting to dislike enormously, and it certainly wasn't something he wanted to force on anyone else.
Monday after work, before the shelter closed, Killian showed up, questions in hand, and met with David again. They went through his concerns, which resulted in a business card for Pet Saviors dog walking/sitting/training, and a schedule of puppy kindergarten obedience classes the shelter offered for new adoptees. They also went through the list of gear Killian had compiled and scratched off about a third of it before Killian was ready to go in with the puppies. He was a bit nervous now that he'd made his decision to adopt a dog that none of them would take to him, but he stuffed it away lest they sensed his hesitation. His thoughts kept returning to the female Black Lab and the comfort he felt as she leaned against him, but he couldn't be sure, after a single visit, if he could trust his instinct that told him she was the one.
They left David's office and went in the entrance to the training room. Two of the shelter workers were standing by a kiddie pool full of water and five of the six puppies milling around the outside of it in various stages of dampness. That was, except for one. The lovely lass he'd been enamored with was smack in the middle of the pool, happily chasing a tennis ball floating around. She was thoroughly soaked and seemed to be having a grand time. If he hadn't been a grown man wearing professional clothes, he would have joined her because he recognized that look on her face—it was the same affinity he had for the water. Her ease in the pool went beyond an ignorance of not knowing the dangers, rather, it was a trust that she was part of the water, too. A trait every good sailor had. "Black Lab Number 1," it seemed, was perfect for him just as he'd suspected and hoped she might be.
Killian couldn't help but laugh, and when the pup heard him, she snatched the tennis ball with her sharp little teeth, and attempted to haul it and her belly out of the pool three times before finally flopping over the edge like some hairy fish, the ball falling from her jaw. She righted herself and pounced on the tennis ball as it rolled away, then turned in Killian's direction. Dripping water as she trotted over to him, tail proudly in the air, she dropped the ball at his feet with a squishy thud. Just as he squatted down to pick up the ball, the pup shook off, spraying water all over Killian.
Shaking his head with a chuckle as he wiped his face, Killian wagged a finger at her in mock irritation and murmured "Dreadful girl! If I'm going to take you home with me, there will need to be less of that now, do you hear, love?"
The puppy just leaned against his leg, soaking his slacks, and completely stealing his heart.
David patted Killian's back and asked, "Should we go take care of the paperwork so she can adopt you?"
In the days before Killian was able to bring home his new dog, he ran around picking up the supplies he would need for his house, and to take her for walks and rides, as well as looking into gear specifically to bring her out on his boat. She wouldn't be ready until closer to the end of the summer, but he did intend to break her into his seafaring ways now and again. A life jacket would be in order at the very least. He had a feeling keeping her out of the water until she was a stronger swimmer would be quite the challenge.
He also stopped by and met Mrs. Lucas, the owner of Pet Saviors, and set up a regular schedule of training and walking with one of her employees. Mrs. Lucas, herself, obviously had many years experience with dogs, of that he could see right away in her vast knowledge of training methods, but more importantly, she seemed to be keenly observant of people, too, and in her forthright way, assured him that his charge would be taken care of as if she were Mrs. Lucas' own. He didn't doubt her for a minute.
"I know the perfect trainer for your new pup, Mr. Jones. Don't you worry for a second. Emma Swan is the best I've got and she will do right by you and…what did you say the dog's name was again?"
"Galene. She's named after the Greek goddess of calm seas," he said, rather proud of his choice of names. Her mother, Charis, was named for the Graces of mythological Greece, so Killian felt it only appropriate to give his girl a name befitting the life he sought of calm seas and fair winds.
Mrs. Lucas looked at him with no small degree of bemusement from over the top of her glasses, her gray hair a frizzy cloud around her head. "'Gale' work for you? I'm not so hot with remembering fancy names."
"Aye, 'Gale' is fine," he agreed.
"Wonderful. Ms. Swan will be by Monday while you are at work to spend some time getting to know...Gale...as well as starting some rudimentary training. Here's a notebook for the two of you to communicate, and if you've got your spare house key, I will pass it along."
She exchanged a black notebook with a gold embossed dog with angel's wings and a halo on the cover for Killian's key, and immediately added a ring with Gale's name to it. She got up from her chair and dropped it in a basket labeled "Swan" in a basket by the door.
"Funny," Mrs. Lucas snorted softly.
Killian tilted his head, not quite sure he heard her correctly. "Did you say 'funny?'"
Turning around with a wide smile, Mrs. Lucas nodded. "Yep. I did. Your Gale is named after a sea goddess, and Ms. Swan there is named for a water fowl. Quite the amusing coincidence, don't you think, Mr. Jones?"
Returning her smile, Killian felt some odd sense of relief at her observation. "It does bode well, Mrs. Lucas," he said.