Rescue Me | Audio
By MaryAlice Meli
MaryAlice Meli is a writer living in Steelers country, aka Pittsburgh,PA. She is a former reading teacher and newspaper reporter. She earned a master's degree in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, Greensburg, PA. Her flash fiction has appeared online at EveryDayFiction.com
Maribel cradled Rhonda's head as the dog rested on the steel examining table. The Irish Setter was in kidney failure, normal for a dog nearly fifteen. The woman's teary blue eyes looked into her companion's large, dark ones. She smoothed a finger down Rhonda's long face then smoothed her hand one last time over the thick red coat and slender, graceful legs. The dog tilted her nose toward Maribel and extended her tongue to give the woman's cheek a forgiving lick.
The vet moved closer shielding the needle behind his hand. Maribel looked up at him and nodded. The end of Rhonda's life would be kinder than its beginning as the target of an abusive owner's shooting fun.
Maribel adopted Rhonda from a setter rescue group and she had been a good fit, easy to please, sweet, non-judgmental. Maribel's husband's bitterness as his congested heart disease progressed lightened with Rhonda at his feet.
Maribel could have started dating after her husband died but never got around to it. Her job at the bank kept her busy and Rhonda was always at the door when she came home. They took long, daily walks. At night, Rhonda stretched across the bottom of Maribel's bed. Life had been good for both, simple, predictable. Then Rhonda began to fail.
Acutely aware of her aloneness with Rhonda gone, Maribel thought about adopting another dog. She'd confided to the vet her fears about adopting another animal, that she would pass on leaving the dog to who knew what fate. The vet suggested that she volunteer at an animal shelter, maybe even foster an animal.
Maribel kicked that idea around as she continued the nightly walks alone. She was so tired of the same routine: work, home, microwaved leftovers or something frozen, eating with Scott Pelley on television. She looked through the newspaper each night and noticed classified ads for pets with the eye-catching banner: Rescue Me.
There was a bull terrier mix of six months and a two-year-old lab/collie mix but no setters and no old dogs. Maribel preferred an older dog that wouldn't need to be trained in the basics and would enjoy her quiet company.
That weekend, Maribel decided to take the veterinarian's advice. She visited the nearest animal shelter and registered to volunteer. A man with "Kevin" on his nameplate, overwhelmed by people crowding the cage room, turned Maribel over to a long-time volunteer, an older man he introduced as Regis.
Tall and spare, Regis wore what was left of his silver hair in a thin ponytail bound by a rubber band. He didn't smile. He flexed a thick, leather leash and studied her with cold, gray eyes. Finally, in an oddly formal tone considering the surrounding mayhem, he said, "How do you do?"
"I'm not sure yet." Maribel smiled but felt off-balance by the quiet that seemed to encase the man. "Is it always this hectic?"
"On weekends, yes; during the week, not so much," Regis said, his voice a reedy tenor. "Let me get one of the dogs unlikely to be chosen for adoption. We'll take him for a walk outside where we can hear ourselves."
Regis walked with a slight limp down a hallway to the cage room. In the middle of one of the larger cages, a black pit bull planted on stumpy legs, his coat scarred and one ear feathered stared at them with startling yellow eyes. Maribel shivered. Was that animal safe to be let out even on a chain? She watched the frail looking Regis as he talked to the dog and unlocked the cage. His voice grew deeper, softer, his steely eyes warmed and his face seemed to glow with tenderness.
"Come on, Pete, let's go for a ramble." To Maribel, he explained, "His name is Petrol, black as oil and just as flammable from his days as a fighter. The cops brought him here last year after breaking up an illegal dog fighting ring in the West End. This was a beautiful dog. You can see what they did to him. He has a lovely personality but no one will ever believe he is anything but a monster."
"Lucky for him this is a no-kill shelter," Maribel said, not moving any closer.
The dog stood silently as Regis fastened the leash and then gave a quick lick to the man's hand.
"It's taken him more than six months to feel safe enough to do that." Regis's knees cracked as he stooped and scratched the dog's ears. "You're handsome, Pete, don't let anybody tell you any different."
Outside, they walked Pete along the shelter's extensive woodsy trails. Regis told her about the shelter, that volunteers walked dogs, cleaned cages, played with cats. He asked if she had pets. She told him about Rhonda. That led to her day job, her late husband and their two sons living out-of-state. She was surprised how easy it was to talk to Regis, companionable. He told her he was divorced, retired from teaching high school math and lived in a no-pets apartment building. When she'd looked surprised, his lips twitched to a half smile. It was no-choice economics, he said. A sizeable portion of his pension supported his ex-wife.
By the time they headed back to the building, Maribel was holding Pete's leash. The dog didn't pull, kept pace neither ahead of nor behind her. He's polite, just like Rhonda, but so scary looking, she thought. Pete glanced up at her with his yellow eyes and wagged his tail.
In the weeks that followed, Maribel stopped at the shelter after work on Wednesdays when it was open later and on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. She felt upbeat when she was there and began wearing make-up again, even gave her blond hair a rinse to lift the gray. Regis always seemed to be there, too, and they walked dogs together. She felt him note the changes in her appearance. His eyes took on the same warmth they had when he looked at Pete and he would nod at her. She felt pleased that he noticed; no one at the bank had.
Several times over the weeks when Regis couldn't be there, he'd leave notes for her about the dogs and twice he left books. One was "All Creatures Great and Small," by Dr. James Herriot, the other, "Cactus Tracks and Cowboy Philosophy," poems by Baxter Black, a large animal veterinarian. Both made her laugh and gave her and Regis more to talk about. She told him about the Rescue Me ads and how she wanted a dog but was afraid and why she was afraid.
One Wednesday night, Regis was not there when Maribel arrived. The on-duty staff member, Kevin again, handed her an envelope with a note and a newspaper clipping. "Maribel, Don't forget Pete tonight. Did you see this pet ad? Might be what you're looking for." The scrawl was signed, R. She'd save the ad to read later.
Maribel's heart beat faster as she approached Pete's cage. She'd never taken him out by herself. He was waiting in the middle of the concrete pad, as usual. Maribel paused at the sight of those yellow eyes then unlocked the cage. A low growl started in Pete's throat. Maribel froze until she noticed Pete's eyes staring not at her but behind her.
"Are you sure you want to take him out by yourself?" said Kevin, his voice high and tight. "Regis is the only one who handles him." Maribel opened the cage door and Kevin shuffled backward.
Maribel looked back at Pete to see the dog's tail wagging. She relaxed and smiled. "We'll be fine, won't we, Pete?" She fastened the leash and slid the muzzle over his nose. "Time for a ramble." Maribel and Pete shared the happiness of exercising in the brisk air fragrant with wood smoke. Pete matched her slow pace. Her arthritis, responding to the weather, had stiffened her usual smooth stride.
After twenty minutes, she said, "Come on, Pete, we'll sit inside for a few minutes before I leave." She led the dog to a bench in the cage area. She scratched his ears and he leaned against her. The dog sat and then lay on her feet, just as Rhonda had. She pulled the pet ad from the envelope Regis had left for her.
One stood out. It was the only one with the banner, Rescue Me. It read, "Old dog needs love. Well-trained. Responds well to simple commands and lives to please. Domestic shorthair. Non-shedding." The phone number given was that of the animal shelter. She felt a flutter of excitement. The ad sounded to Maribel like Pete. He was short-haired. He was older but not exactly an old dog, though he looked like one. He did obey simple commands and tried to please. Could there be another? The idea of having someone else take Pete revived the pain of her recent losses and filled her with sadness and the panic that precedes an expected loss. She had to know which dog this ad meant.
"Come on, Pete, time to go back to your crate." The dog moved without hesitation to his cage and walked inside after she removed the muzzle and leash. On impulse, she kissed his nose. "See you on Saturday...I hope."
She hurried to show the ad to Kevin now at his desk.
"Do you still have this dog?"
"Oh, yeah, that's the special case," he giggled. "He's kinda shy so we keep him in the back." Maribel thought Pete's growl had really unsettled this guy to make him so giddy.
Kevin pointed to a door behind the counter.
"Just go on through there."
"Are you sure? Is it safe?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, go on." Kevin bent over an inventory list and giggled again.
Maribel opened the door to a small office. A man sat in a desk chair, a man with a short, silver ponytail. He slowly swiveled around. He held a leash in his hand which he held out to her.
"Woof." Regis said.
Where was the dog? Maribel looked around. Could Regis, quiet, serious Regis actually be playing a joke?
"Regis." She leaned against what she thought was the wall but it was Kevin standing behind her again, his giggle now a guffaw. She shut the door on him and locked it.
"Uh-oh," Regis said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd be so disappointed to find me here instead of a dog."
He looked so pitiful, Maribel was moved. "Shocked is more the word. Stunned." She took a breath and moved closer, holding the newspaper clipping. "Is this your way of asking me out?"
Regis dropped the leash and leaned back in the chair "Yes, ah... yes, I am." He didn't meet her eyes.
"Creative." Maribel looked again at the ad. "You're not really asking me to rescue you, are you?"
He still didn't look up but leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees.
"I want to spend more time with you," he said, draping the leash around his neck, the ends dangling down. "I guess it would be a rescue from the loneliness that has grown more vivid since I've known you." He looked up and grimaced. "I'm sorry, it's been so long since I met a woman I wanted to go out with, I forgot how to ask."
Maribel had been feeling lonely, too. Needing someone to care about her. She thought of Pete. Something to care about? Or someone? She read the ad again. "You say you're well-trained? Respond to simple commands?"
Regis glanced up and grew even more still than usual.
"You're sure you don't shed?"
A slow smile spread across Regis's face. "And I need love. Don't forget that part." He stood and handed her the leash.
"Let's start with coffee." She unlocked the door.
"I live to please."