Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 18

Friday, August 11

For the past three days in a row, hissing water has been raining upwards on the lawn of one house we pass on our walk. I’m not afraid of water in general anymore, but I’m glad that my human steers us off the curb and out of the danger zone. The first day this strange phenomenon occurred, my human and I barreled straight through and got very wet. My human squawked indignantly, and I squinted my eyes to keep out the mist.

We had almost reached the bridge to the dog park when we encountered a young golden retriever who postured at me obnoxiously. He and his human crossed to the opposite side of the street, but his breath wheezed, and he strained on the end of his leash, puffing out his chest and staring me down, hard, from a rigid stalk of a neck. My human led me to a tree and commanded “free.” Scarcely able to believe my luck, I lifted my leg and felt sweet release overrule my anxiety as the dog’s human dragged him away.

At the house with the wood floors, my human and her mother pushed things with wheels right up close to me in my “down, stay.” I blinked at them placidly, not bothering to shift my position because they’re both alphas, so I trust them not to run over my paws.

I watched Nikki and Juliet wrestle together. Juliet is very vocal when she plays. Because Nikki is so small and submissive, Juliet doesn’t feel threatened by her, so she actually lays down on her back and lets Nikki stand over her while she bites at Nikki’s neck.

Juliet is a masterful hunter. Even though she’s only fifteen pounds, as far as I and any prey animals unfortunate enough to stray into her territory are concerned, she’s fifteen pounds of pure terror. She catches birds and rabbits that weigh more than she does. The only time I’ve ever caught anything, it was a slimy baby bird, and it was already dead. I found it on top of Chloe’s dog bed, and I got so excited that I just stood, rooted in place, staring at it. Then I felt wobbly, so I took a step back and vomited all over the wood floor. Then I decided the bird was probably actually Chloe’s, so I left it alone.

Another time I was in the backyard at the house with the wood floors (graciously helping Magda battle her private demons by letting her clean my teeth), when Juliet herded a lizard right under our paws. Except for my human’s mice, which were “not mine” I’d never been so near a live prey animal before. I hopped up and down in a frenzy of ecstasy, then leaned in to sniff this wonderful new thing, and smashed it flat with my nose. But that one was an accident, so it doesn’t count.

Part of me longed to join in the rough housing match, but I didn’t dare. For one thing I was holding “down, stay,” and for another I’m so afraid of Juliet that she once caused me to execute my single less than perfect recall. It was Sunday and I was off-leash on the driveway during our break from the cafe. My human called me “come,” and I was about to obey, but just then Juliet burst out of the house, dragging my human’s brother like a dead weight on the end of a long, thin, snappy leash. She bayed her evil intentions in a voice that cut like a razor, and whipped back and forth on her lead, frantic to nip my ankles and herd me into submission. Thus blocked from rocketing straight to my human at light speed, sliding into home plate on my butt like I’d usually do, I chose caution as the better part of valor. I swerved so far around the savage beast that I nearly fell off the edge of the flat planes of concrete, where I’d have tumbled down a rocky, brush covered slope.

“Ready” is extra challenging at church because my human doesn’t give me verbal feedback. Instead she snaps my leash lightly if my attention wanders. We sat in the row behind my human’s family, not exactly pack, but not totally isolated either. She didn’t give off that sadness smell - that “otherness” smell - today.

We went to the lunch place, then I napped in the car with my head draped over the cool plastic of the center console while my human did something that involved my blue vest and string and a repetitive zippy sound. It was hot, so I lapped water from a paper bowl in the footwell.

Later I napped at the library on one of their lovely pillows. I have a pillow exactly like the library pillows at home. It’s small and square, so I have to curl up in a ball in order to fit all of me onto it, but it’s super comfy and the smallness actually makes me feel secure. Today there were a lot of kids, but they weren’t too boisterous. There were two other working dogs on duty, but I was the most popular, so the children gravitated over to pet me. Recently more kids approach me smelling confident and friendly. Also, for some reason, recently my pesky human always makes me wear my pink sunglasses to work. I mostly just lay still on my pillow, but for a few of the kids who are regulars I renewed acquaintance by lifting my chin to sniff their faces. I rarely actually lick anyone, and never at the library, because kids don’t intimidate me enough that I feel I need to make overt appeasement gestures.

“I like Monkey. Nothing phases him. That little flick of his ear - that was cute. He’s the most laid-back dog I’ve seen here.”

They’re just words but my human’s scent beamed with pride when the woman said that to her. Much of the adults’ body language reads “caution,” but this woman sat back in her chair, unworried.

On the way out, after my human released me with “okay,” a little girl who pets me very often stood over my shoulder and clasped her arms around my neck. I stood still and patiently allowed her to do it, just like Juliet permits Nikki to make dominance gestures when they play. In my opinion kids are totally harmless so I let them get away with anything.

WINTER 2014

It’s early morning. Last night as I slept I kept one ear cocked to the patter of rain against the windows, and now the pavement beneath my paws is slick with puddles and a chill lingers in the air. My footfalls throw up icy mud to cake my legs and belly in black stripes. I squint my eyes when a stray rain drop strikes my forehead. My human is almost entirely covered in shiny grey cloth, so that all I can see of her face is a tiny oval around her eyes.

My human steers us to the right, the first turn in our familiar route. We travel the same path everyday, six miles before breakfast, three before dinner, but lately we’ve been walking instead of running. My human’s joints give off a hot pain smell similar to old arthritic Harry.

Cars whizz past us, violently flinging sheets of water in our direction. Everything is faster and louder and more real today. In the aftermath of the rain smells sing to me like never before.

I don’t make any conscious decisions. My nostrils flare with a delicious scent, and then I’m a missile aimed and fired in that direction. My human’s startled “hey!” when I suddenly veer to the left, jerking the leash from her grasp, never registers. The world narrows to a single pinpoint of interest: the squirrel. All other objects fade into a homogenous background blur. Bunching my powerful haunches, I launch myself from the curb.

No pain. Only a tremendous pressure. I hear a faint, sickening crunch that seems to echo from very far away. The impact flings me backwards.

I meet my human’s eyes beseechingly. “Come save me,” I tell her. I’m whimpering, the small, involuntary sounds stealing out of me without my consent. My human is paralyzed on the sidewalk, screaming. Her cries are ragged and hoarse and loud enough that they pierce my eardrums, cutting through the whirr of cars careening past me. I stagger a few faltering steps forward. It’s hard because my body is numb from paw to chest. My legs tingle as though the vet has decided to prick me with needles all over.

At last my human surges into action. Quick as a flash, she reaches me, and that’s all that matters. In some distant part of myself I’m ashamed over the state I’m in. I whine at her, hobbling towards her with my ears laid back and my head and tail puppyishly low. Anybody who thinks dogs wag their tails because they’re happy should see me now, wagging with all I’ve got. I need to tell my human so many things, but I can’t connect my thoughts, and I’m certainly not happy. When did my voice get so thin and frail? I can’t stop licking my lips, lapping at the air. I don’t remember when I started, but now I’m caught in the cycle of the motion and I have to wait for it to release me.

She smells so bad. I’m too tired and too fuzzy to identify and catalogue the individual scents, but she’s polluting the air and I want to tell her to stop. I’m beginning to hurt, and all I want is for her to make it stop. But I’m also afraid to let her see my weakness even though she’s my alpha and it’s her job to protect me. What about our walk? Why aren’t we walking? The darkness has gobbled our pack and our walk together is the only good thing we have left.

Inexplicably there’s a car parked in the middle of the road. A lady jumps out and rushes towards us. Her hands move in flappy expressive gestures and words pour out of her. “Oh my gosh. I didn’t even see a dog. I was breaking for the squirrel. Is he okay? Get in, I’ll take you to the vet. I’m not from around here, I was driving all night to visit my sister in the hospital. What vet do you go to?”

The pain grows bigger and bigger until it’s all I can concentrate on. I’m in a car, then I’m on the driveway in front of Heidi’s house, then I’m in another car. My teeth are chattering. I think from the smooth, cool texture and scent of ancient leather that it’s my human’s car this time. But they’re fleeting impressions that barely register through the pulsing tide of pain beating up against me. My tongue is lolling, and my eyes are glazed. The world looks murky and dark-edged but also somehow brittle.

I’m hazily aware of a flat hard surface beneath me. Somehow, I know it’s elevated, and that if I plan to make a break for it, I’ll have to drop a long way to the floor. I bare my teeth in a grimace and then a shriek escapes me when something prods my left hind leg. I feel a sharp stab, the influx of cold liquid, and my torment lessens, but not by much.

My human is speaking. It’s too much effort to turn my head to try to see her, and anyway my eyes can’t penetrate the thick grey fog. All I can smell is chemicals and blood, and it’s not even interesting because it’s my own blood. For a moment I think I hear Chloe’s human, but it’s like I’ve swam out too far from the beach. The strong current buffets me mercilessly, my claws can’t grapple onto anything, and the sounds slip away from me. My human’s voice sounds tiny and fragile. I hear the hitch in her throat when she swallows dryly.

“Mom, I know we haven’t talked in a long time. But my dog, Monkey, was hit by a car. His leg’s broken. We’re at the vet, but I don’t have enough money to pay them so they’re not going to treat him. I need help.”

A little while later there’s another needle prick under the loose folds of my scruff, and I fade out.

When I wake up the world changes drastically, but not for the better.

One hind leg - the left - is encased in something stiff. It itches fiercely, and I’m sure I can chew the wrappings off, but every time I put my mouth to them my human catches my gaze and raises an eyebrow at me warningly. I can’t get a good comfortable stance to poop, and gradually the anal gland on the same side as my cast burns like fire. I lick and lick below the base of my tail, desperate for relief, until a square patch of hair falls out, leaving the skin beneath raw and enflamed from the rasp of my tongue. There’s a line of pokey, plastic wires stitched through the skin of my right hind leg at my hock. That itches too. Except for my anal gland, my right shoulder hurts most of anything; it’s tender and sore.

We never travel together anymore. My human leaves the house briefly on foot every day. She heads in the direction of the steep hill where we used to end our runs. I can smell her heading off and returning through the wooden slats of the fence, but I’m stuck inside the yard and I can’t get to her. I ram the boards with my front paws again and again, and the gate’s hinges jiggle hopefully but they stubbornly refuse to give under my weight. Since I’m trapped I send my loudest, frustrated pit bull screams to chase her down.

Periodically, we drive to the vet, where strange humans take my leash and tow me away from my human against my will. They have to drag me in blind, hopping, backwards steps, because I refuse to turn in their direction. I look back at my alpha imploringly until doors shut, cutting her off from my sight. Finally, I acknowledge my captors, wagging at them and begging them with my big, bottomless, sorrowful doggy eyes to take me back to my pack. They speak to me in soft voices that tell me they’re not strong dominants capable of protecting me, and then I feel the small stab of another shot. I’m becoming very familiar with the weird, zoned out, half alive state that follows.

Eventually my human comes for me, but I have a hard time recognizing her. My eyes are bulging so wide, but my vision clouds with tears. I’m whimpering hysterically, soft wining sounds exhaled with every breath. When we get home, I fall into a deep slumber and wake soaked in my own urine, acid leaching into my skin. I’m cold and sticky and miserable and the itch is worse than ever.

We don’t go to the shelter anymore, but instead drive to the buildings with the glass doors where I had to wait in the parking lot so long. Now I only stay in the car for two hours at a time, and my human returns smelling of other dogs and kibble instead of other dogs and harsh, stingy shampoo.

My baseline is a constantly, low level of anxiety now. I can’t bear to be parted from my human for an instant. Instead of our bedroom, we sleep stretched out in the living room on a fluffy white blanket over a firm, plastic scented mat. Each evening before dinner I’m supposed to “down, stay” on our mat while my human climbs up to our room. Sometimes I can’t hold my post and I’m waiting for her, panting frantically, my chest pressed up against the short, squeaky gate at the bottom of the stairs when she returns smelling of Kitten the mouse (When we first moved in, Heidi’s human helped my human lug the glass box from the backseat of the car up to a spot under the windows in our room). Kitten dies and is replaced by her successors, twin mice Monty and Python. They don’t live very long; I pick up traces of their cloying sickness on my human’s clothing when I sprawl out next to her at night.

My human is not well. For almost a full week she limps, dragging her right foot behind her uselessly. She either floats through her day in a daze, or fidgets restlessly with jerky, nervous tension. The other humans in the house regard her with increasing resentment. I can feel them distancing themselves from our pathetic, broken pack. Dogs conceal our pain to the best of our ability because we understand that weak links need to be eliminated, before they drag an otherwise healthy group down. From some invisible part of her anatomy, my human is bleeding openly. She wears her heart on her sleeve.

Late at night, when the other people have gone upstairs to bed, my human starts doing the bad thing.

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