John’s mother pulled-into Columbia County Animal Shelter’s back driveway and did a loop through the employee parking lot. She used to drop John off at the front door when he was a volunteer but he insisted on using the back door like everyone else now.
John stumbled a bit getting out of the car, prompting his mother to ask, “John, honey, why are you wearing your hiking boots to work? You just bought those and you’re going to tromp-around in those shitty dog kennels?”
John couldn’t remember why. Actually, he couldn’t remember leaving the house. “I’ll be fine Mom,” he replied. “I bought these with my own money anyway.”
Limping into the shelter, he was more concerned with his leg and why it hurt with every step. As the new overnight shelter manager, he knew he didn’t have time to worry about his leg but not knowing what he did to it bothered him. There was always so much to do once the shelter closed for the day. As a volunteer for three years, John had always been kept busy. With his new position, he was able to pace his evening a bit and enjoy the lack of people. He was only here, after all, for the dogs, cats, and various other creatures.
“One day I’m gonna run this whole place!” An outdoorsy guy when his mother allowed, John was always finding lost dogs and cats on his walks. Some were friendlier than others but they all needed help and he’d never felt afraid of an animal in trouble. Sometimes, since he would take-off in new directions for his walks, he’d get as lost as the poor dog he found. Regardless, he always knew he’d come across someone that would help him out with directions.
* * * * * * *
The nightly tasks continued. Filling the mop bucket allowed John to warm himself with the steam. “Why is it so cold in here?” he wondered. It was supposed to snow today but the sun was shining earlier and it was warm. The steam felt good but John was still freezing. “I just need to keep moving,” he thought to himself.
“Hey John,” a voice called behind him. “I saw your mommy drop you off earlier. Did she dress you today too?” John didn’t turn…didn’t raise-up…didn’t give them the satisfaction. John knew he was better than these assholes. Most were only here working-off community service hours anyway. There were lots of things he did without his mother’s knowledge. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, right? John had dealt with people like this his whole life. It’s not like he was a hard target and he knew it.
As he bent over to turn-off the water, a foot against his butt sent his face into the wall and his arm into the mop bucket. The sound of running feet was the only reply he received to his yelp. Getting up, he couldn’t believe how cold his hand felt after being in the steamy water.
* * * * * * *
The evening wore on and the shelter emptied except for John and two vet techs who were watching-over some recovering patients. John was moving quickly despite his aching leg. He’d noticed a litter of puppies in the kennels earlier and wanted to get finished with the nightly checklist as soon as possible. He loved playing with puppies. The shelter didn’t always have them but when they did, it was a special treat.
Finishing his rounds early, he climbed into the kennel for some puppy-time. He tickled their warm bellies until they rolled over squealing like little piglets.
John grimaced through the pain and got on his back in the kennel. Puppies were on him immediately. Puppy chow breath wasn’t the best but it was worth it. He could feel their heat as furry little bodies covered him in a living blanket. As he often did, John began to drift-off for a little nap.
* * * * * * *
John jerked awake to a sharp tug on his sleeve. “That was pretty hard for a puppy,” he thought but didn’t move. He felt even colder than before if that were possible. A hard tug to his sleeve brought his eyes open. It was dark. It was cold. Another tug at his sleeve included a nip that opened his eyes wide!
John’s heart raced and he felt suffocated like he was in a crowded room.
Lying on his back with his eyes adjusting, he saw through fur to…trees? He was outside and it WAS snowing. He started to get up and screamed as pain shot through his leg. His foot was facing the wrong way. The scream seemed to generate air around him but he heard whining. Freezing, he started to remember things.
He remembered going for a walk.
He remembered getting pushed and tripping.
He had tried getting up when he fell but that only brought crying and pain.
He must have drifted-off.
He’d have frozen to death peacefully had he not been tugged awake.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized the puppies of his dream were nothing like the wolves around him now.