Lathan cries out in pain as another blow lands to his already bruised face. Strings of blood-tinged spit fly onto the floor from the next punch that threatens to dislocate his jaw.
Chad and Vance have taken turns beating him to the point where he’s having trouble remembering his own damn name. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse—the glint of a steel blade catches his eye that isn’t completely swollen shut.
Advancing towards his tied-up former second-in-command, Chad sneers with every drop of Lathan’s blood he sees. He carves a path along the most sensitive parts of a man’s body to elicit just the right amount of pain out. It won’t do any good to go overboard. He needs Lathan conscious, so that the warning coming later sticks.
Chad backs up to admire his handiwork before stepping over to wipe his favorite knife clean. Vance takes the opportunity to approach the chair again.
Digging his fingers into the tender flesh of a wound, that is already trying to heal, on the right side of Lathan’s head; he speaks through gritted teeth...
“You fucked up, brother. Fucked up royally. If you were anyone else—you wouldn’t be breathing right now. Why choose them over us? Huh? WHY?!”
The grip he has on Lathan tightens with his question; the only thing stopping Vance from finishing the job is Chad. When both of his abusers pull away, Lathan slumps forward; his restraints taunt against battered limbs. Hushed, but angry voices barely carry over to him. It’s clear they are arguing—about what—he can’t tell, though. Finally, after a quick shove and firm look by Chad, they return.
“Consider this your first and final warning. If we ever see you again, L, well...”
He looks to Vance, whose face contorts into a nasty grin that says it all; no further explanation needed.
As Chad turns, calling for two of the group standing outside awaiting instructions, his own brother cuts the ropes then kicks the chair so forcefully it sends him sprawling. Lathan falls at the feet of one of the men ordered to drag him out of sight—out of mind.
Curling into a ball in the back of an unmarked van, he can’t help but mutter to himself while letting out a harsh breath...
“That’s what I get for not minding my own damn business.”
_ _ _ _
...A Week Later...
Jennae steps foot outside the door of her last class for the day, phone in hand, ready to text her best friend Gwen. Adjusting the strap of her messenger bag across her front, she has to swerve to miss being hit by some guy speeding by on a bike.
“Where’s the fire? Yeesh...”
It’s 11am on a Wednesday. No reason to plow down innocent pedestrians, douche canoe.
She quickly refocuses her attention on the tasks at hand: texting Gwen and getting to the animal shelter—preferably all in one piece.
“Hey! Heading into the shelter for a bit, but will need pizza and girl time later. Psych theory exam was brutal af! Speaking of brutal...how’d your Neurosci project go? You got the grade for it today, right?”
So engrossed in her texting, she doesn’t notice when a body in the crowd she is navigating through brushes against her side. If the contact had knocked her off course or lingered for a moment longer...maybe she would have. Instead, her eyes skim over the eager reply from Gwen.
“OMG! Yes to pizza and girl time! I’m bringing the wine, so that answers your question about my Neurosci project.”
“That good, huh? lol”
“Oh yeah! If you look close enough, I think you can still see the smoke billowing from where I crashed and burned earlier. #EpicFail”
“Doh, sorry, babe. I’ll make sure to get you extra cheese and olives on your pizza then. Sounds like you need it. Come by around 7, okay? Love ya!”
“I really do. Thanks bestie. See ya then. ILYM!!”
The conversation ends right as Jennae is about to reach the steps leading to the Mills Creek Animal Shelter & Rescue Center. Shelia Rainey owns the shelter and has been a friend of her parents for years.
Jennae helps out part time as a favor in exchange for valuable experience and a chance to connect people with possible support animals. The look on a person’s face when their anxiety or depression lessens just from the simple company of an animal companion—it’s one of the major reasons she wants to become a therapist.
Skirting around various people waiting in the lobby or at the front desk, Jennae makes her way down the corridor to the offices. Her bag is hung up on a hook before she tosses on an apron and looks for Shelia to get started.
“There you are! Come look at some of our new arrivals.”
Crouched down near a box with a fuzzy blanket spilling out over the top is Shelia. As Jennae gets closer, the fragile body of a kitten comes into view.
“Aww, what happened to the poor thing?”
“Separated from her mother too soon. She will need constant care. I’m going to have Andrea or Bradley bottle feed her for the next few weeks.”
Shelia moves on to a pair of birds in a cage. They appear to be fine; no signs of poor treatment or health issues. A flurry of white feathers follows a series of ear-splitting chirps let out by the cockatoos. Both women cover their ears, wincing slightly before recovering.
“Let me guess. Owners couldn’t take all the vocalizing?”
Jennae settles for watching the beautiful pair from a distance and declines the offer to pet one when Shelia gestures towards the latch. She’s always been a bit nervous around birds; feeling like they can sense her love for chicken and sit perched—ready to silently judge her.
“You got it. Cockatoos are some of the loudest birds people can own as pets. In the wild, they need that for mating or communication.”
Shelia pauses in thought before continuing.
“In captivity, they need it less for alerting others of danger and more for getting their caretakers’ attention. I don’t think this couple expected these birds to bond so strongly with them.”
The entire time she is talking to Jennae, Shelia is stroking the plumage of one cockatoo while its mate preens itself off to the side. After meticulously cleaning and arranging every last feather into optimum position, the cockatoo mate takes notice of the human hand invading its cage.
Flapping its newly groomed wings in her direction, Shelia takes the hint and removes her hand to close the latch.
When Jennae walks over to the next animal, she doesn’t hesitate to reach out towards it. Her gasp escapes involuntarily as the mini lop bunny hops away from her touch with a sudden burst of speed. Closer inspection reveals faint bruising on its hind legs and a wound on the right side of its head.
“Who could do such a thing to you?”
“His name is Loppy, and I was told a child did that to him. The parents bought the bunny for the child’s birthday and made the mistake of leaving her alone with him. This is the result, I’m afraid.”
“Any permanent damage? He seems to still be able to hop on his hind legs just fine.”
“None that I saw on the scans we did. Dr. Austin was in earlier, while Loppy was sedated and performed a thorough exam.”
Shelia’s cheeks redden a bit at her own mention of Dr. Austin, but she decides to continue on before Jennae has the chance to notice. Seeing that her worker is still too wrapped up in the furry bundle of goodness that is Loppy, Shelia raises her voice slightly to get Jennae’s attention.
“We have one more animal that arrived today. Earlier this morning while I was busy checking Loppy over, in fact.”
Her eyes dart to a dog timidly huddled into the corner of its makeshift kennel. Grabbing the clipboard that hangs on the wall beside the door, Shelia reads off the dog’s information.
“Mmm hmm. Male, Husky/Lab mix, and approximately two years of age.”
She is flipping through more pages on the clipboard when Jennae kneels by the dog’s temporary home to get a better look.
“Did he belong to anyone? I think I see a collar beneath all his fur.”
“Hmm...not to my knowledge. As I said, he was brought in when I was in the back. According to this report Andrea filled out, someone found him in an alley behind a nearby restaurant. Workers came out to receive their daily food shipment and saw him trying to limp away.”
The more she looks at the dog, the more she is drawn to him.
Who on Earth would abandon such an amazing-looking animal?
Shelia proceeds to ramble on in the background while Jennae inches tentatively closer. Only a few words register with her as a hand hovers over the dog’s bowed head. Sensing the incoming touch, he backs away to look at her.
Pale blue eyes meet Jennae’s own dark ones.
“I won’t hurt you, boy. Promise.”
Her tone is soft, but steady and seems to do the trick. He allows Jennae to briefly pat his head before laying at her feet. Shelia stops reading from the report’s pages—looking over the top of it—to see the dog accept Jennae fumbling to find the tag on his worn collar.
“Well, you’ve gotten further than I did. Tried to move him to an exam room for a complete check with no luck. Can you do one while you’re down there and got him calm? You know what to look for.”
With careful, gentle movements, Jennae examines the dog’s body as best she can. She winces when some spots appear to be tender to the touch. He doesn’t yelp or bark at her, but occasionally a low whine comes out. It becomes clear that this dog has been abused by whoever owned him last, and she tells Shelia so.
After sighing heavily, Jennae stands and requests to tidy up one of the bigger housing units just for him. Being a Husky mix breed of dog, he will need plenty of room to move when he gets more mobile.
Shelia reminds her that he will also need regular mental and physical stimulation to keep him from getting bored. Huskies can be hyperactive and when left alone for too long...that turns into destructive behavior.
“I’ll make him a schedule and put that in his chart. Between all of us, I’m sure we’ve got it handled. There’s new bedding that someone donated last week you can use for him, okay?”
A swift pat to Jennae’s shoulder ends the discussion, and Shelia’s focus is already back on the tiny feline newcomer that is now struggling in her box.
It doesn’t take long to get the dog’s unit ready. Food and water dishes along with the comfiest of dog beds she could find are placed in it. As soon as Jennae opens the gate on the temporary kennel, the dog is out eagerly waiting for her in the doorway. Once the journey through the back is made, they only have a few units to pass before she stops at his.
“Alright boy, here it is. Your new home...for now.”
When he circles his new resting place and finally lays down, the sound of metal hitting the tile floor reminds Jennae about the tag she thought she saw earlier.
Curious as to what his name might be—she stoops down to take a peek.
A scratched up, bright blue paw print tag shows itself through his thick salt and pepper fur. It’s so worn though that she can barely make out an L then a K.
“Well, that’s no good. I have to call you something besides boy all the time.”
Her mind shuffles through an extremely short list of possibilities for a name.
“Lucky? Hrm...no. You don’t look like a Lucky to me. Luke?”
There’s absolutely no response from the dog whatsoever when that last name comes out.
Must not be it then...crap!
A couple others are tested—all with the same result: nada. Jennae is just about to give up when her thoughts flicker to the mythology text she was reading for one of her classes. The name Loki immediately springs to her lips, and the dog responds by startling forward a bit into the hand on her knee, giving it a nudge.
“Loki? Is that it?”
Whimpering that turns into a bark is what she is given as an answer.
“Loki...I like that name.”
Her hand drifts to his head again to give it a few gentle pats. Surprise coats the expression on Jennae’s face when Loki encourages more contact. He seems at ease with her now that they are alone.
Several minutes pass; those few pats have turned into scratches and rubs around his collar that he leans into. Before she knows it, more than an hour has gone by...it’s almost 2pm already.
Reluctantly, she gets up to attend to the other animals she’s responsible for. The paperwork Shelia still needs done from yesterday will have to be finished too.
“I’d love to stay and pet you more, Loki, but duty calls. I’ll come by on my way out the door to check on you again. Be a good boy for me, huh?”
He seems content to stay after hearing her promise to come by and see him again before leaving for the day.
The end of her shift comes. True to her word, Jennae stands in front of Loki’s unit with a smile pulling at her lips. He’s sitting right at the gate—muzzle pressed slightly against the chain link. Moving only when she releases the latch to step inside with him, his eyes like shimmering ice floes, track her walk to his food and water dishes. Jennae stays just long enough to refill them and pet him before waving goodbye to her new furry friend.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back tomorrow, Loki. Bye!”
At home—she drops off her bag and prepares for the whirlwind that is her friend Gwen. In a flurry of pizza slices and glasses of wine, the much needed girls’ night is over.
Later, when Jennae is getting ready to pass out...a gust of chilly wind from her bedroom window sends her rushing to close it. Fresh out of a hot, relaxing shower, the towel she is in affords little protection. Goosebumps form amidst the traces of water left on her still damp skin. She shivers; not merely from the crisp, early December air, but from the fact that she can’t remember opening the window in the first place.
_ _ _ _