I couldn’t leave her there on death row at Christmas, this shaggy, patchwork dog named Noelle. Never mind that she and I shared the same name, even the same unusual spelling that so few would know to use. Her sad eyes told a story that kept me from sleeping for nearly a week until I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to save her. And save her I did, although now as we huddled together in the exam room of a local veterinary clinic, I had to wonder just how determined I was to sabotage my own sanity.
“Microchips can migrate.” The veterinarian passed her circular wand over Noelle’s right shoulder one more time, eliciting a blip six full inches from where it should have sounded. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it happen. Shelter employees don’t always know to scan the whole body. They scan here–” She placed her other hand on Noelle’s back, just behind her withers. “And if they don’t get a reading, they assume the dog isn’t chipped. Well, we can’t ignore this. I have to contact the shelter and see if our information matches the intake information they got from the owner.”
I swallowed hard as Dr. Margate entered the chip number into an online database. Noelle watched me with a steadfast gaze, her blue eye giving me a much cooler appraisal than her warm brown one. “Australian Shepherd mix,” her shelter kennel card had read. “Tri-color female, five years old. Spayed, no chip. Unwanted.”
That last bit had shattered my resolve: “unwanted.” Someone had dumped a dog named Noelle at one of the highest kill shelters in South Florida. At Christmas. Just unfathomable, the heartlessness of some people. I had to right that wrong. So I became a dog owner, in a rented cabin, in a town I wasn’t sure I’d even settle in.
Noelle and I walked out of the clinic with a clean bill of health for her and a load of worry for me. When I’d signed the adoption papers yesterday, it was with the understanding that I now owned her, free and clear. I certainly owned the adoption fee and the vet bill I’d just paid.
The vet’s discovery bothered me–why go to the trouble and expense of chipping a dog only to ditch it at a kill shelter? Moreover, what if someone contacted the previous owner to verify the information on the chip, and somehow Noelle ended up having to go back to them? She’d be in the same situation that resulted in such a close call with euthanasia all over again, and if those horrible people dumped her a second time, I might not learn about it soon enough to rescue her before the unthinkable happened.
In the car, Noelle watched me from the passenger seat with unwavering trust as we left the clinic’s tiny parking lot and joined the light afternoon traffic. Once we were on the street, she glanced out the windows as I drove, observing everything with the quiet assurance of a dog who had ridden in cars often and had no anxiety about them.
Nothing about her made sense. Such a well-mannered girl, properly socialized, evidence of prior veterinary care, yet discarded like an old toy no one wanted after the shiny wore off. How had this happened to her? How had she come to be alone in the world when so clearly she’d once known love and what it meant to feel secure?
For that matter, how had the same thing happened to me?
I braked at a stoplight and looked around at the bustle of a small town I knew as well as the road map of my own heart. The city limits had grown since I came here as a child, every winter with my parents, to the same rental cabins on a freshwater lake where we spent Christmas away from the cold and snow of our Pennsylvania home. But the years and urban sprawl had done nothing to lessen the charm I found in Okeechobee County. My best memories still lived here, intact after the death of my parents and the catastrophic failure of a marriage I never should have agreed to. Once the estate was settled and the final decree had been signed, I fled here, to the only place I knew where peace came in the form of citronella torches and sunburn was a comfort.
I’d managed to rent a cabin on the same lake where a dozen years of Christmas tradition had shaped my childhood. While everyone back home was shoveling snow and crashing their sleds, my favorite holiday friend and I had spent our days catching bluegill and bass, canoeing and camping on the dock, telling ghost stories long into the night in makeshift tents with flashlight beams casting weird shadows on our faces. Tommy came down every Christmas with his family, too, from Jacksonville. The Christmas before my ninth birthday was the last time I saw him. I could no longer remember what his face looked like or even his last name, but I remembered the feeling of being together against the world, invincible and innocent before life taught me there was no such thing as happy endings.
Noelle waited for me to call her name before she hopped out of the car. Such a good girl. I gave her head a rub, running my fingers up the patch of white between her eyes. She leaned into my touch, tail wagging slowly, side to side in a swish of silky hair. How anyone could desert this beautiful animal was beyond my ability to comprehend.
My cell phone started ringing before we’d gotten completely through the door. It was the veterinarian, and she had news.
“I made contact with the person Noelle’s microchip is registered to,” she told me. “I spoke with him directly. He said he left Noelle with a family friend when he was deployed two years ago and only learned when he got home that they’d given her away. He was furious about it, said he even filed a police report. He wants her back, Ms. Gibson. He’s driving down tomorrow and wants to see her.”
My breath left me in a huff and all I could do for several seconds was stand there staring down at the merle and tan patterns on top of Noelle’s head. “I don’t suppose I get a say in the matter?”
Dr. Margate stammered for a moment, no doubt trying to find the best words to appease me when the truth was not something I wanted to hear. “Of course you do. But he loves this dog. He’ll probably fight for her now that he knows what happened. Are you prepared to take it that far?”
“Yes.” I didn’t even have to think about it. “She ended up in a kill shelter. She would have been put down the day I adopted her if I hadn’t gotten there when I did. What’s to say the same thing won’t happen again if she goes back to the same owner?”
“He was deployed, Ms. Gibson. Sent to Afghanistan. It’s not like he suddenly realized he was allergic to dog hair after having Noelle for ten years. This is different. I know you’re concerned. But put yourself in his shoes. He’s been trying to find Noelle since he was discharged, and that was nearly three months ago. He trusted her with a family friend–bad mistake–but what choice did he have? I really hope you think about this. About what’s best for the dog.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and unclenched my jaw enough to speak. “Why didn’t his ‘family friend’ just tell him they dumped her at the pound?”
“Because that’s not what they did. Apparently they gave her away on Craigslist. Who knows how many times she changed hands after that. I guess we should all be glad she didn’t end up as alligator bait or sold to a lab.”
I looked down at Noelle. She looked back, gaze steady and clear. So trusting–she depended on me to do the right thing, but would I? How would I know what the right thing was? Maybe I should let her tell me how she felt about this person who supposedly loved her so much. She might get one whiff of him, tuck her tail, and run. That would speak volumes.
“Okay.” I reminded myself not to grit my teeth. “I’ll meet with him and let him see Noelle. But if she doesn’t recognize him or if she’s not comfortable with him, there’s no way I’m giving her back. He needs to know this up front.”
“I’ll tell him,” the veterinarian assured me. “I’m glad you’re being reasonable.”
We agreed that the best place to meet would be on neutral ground. Dr. Margate offered her clinic and told me to be there at noon. She’d give up her lunch break to help me evaluate Noelle’s reaction to Staff Sergeant T.J. Davis at seeing him for the first time in two and a half years. I suspected that she was more interested in mitigating human drama than observing canine behavior, and I couldn’t fault her logic.
I slept fitfully that night with Noelle curled on top of the sheet beside me. I spent enough time awake to know that she didn’t twitch a whisker no matter how many times I flopped around trying to find a comfortable position. She had definitely not spent the first years of her life learning to be insecure or afraid. Was that Davis’s doing? Was he the person from her past who’d taught her how to be so confident and trusting even when the world shifted constantly around her?
By noon the next day I was resolute that Noelle would stay with me. Even if I had to fight this man in court, even if he threatened me with dognapping–or whatever criminal charge he might lob at me for refusing to return his dog–I would be ready.
Dr. Margate met Noelle and me at the door of her clinic. She’d closed for lunch so we had the small waiting room to ourselves.
“Again, I have to tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to talk with Mr. Davis.” She folded her arms and appraised me with an uneasy look. “I hope you will at least hear him out.”
I nodded. Of course I’d hear him out. But that didn’t mean I’d change my mind. No need telling her that, though. The last thing I wanted to do was put her more on edge, since it was clear she already had doubts about my motivation to cooperate.
“He’s in exam room one,” she said. “Waiting for you. Maybe it’s best if you go in and speak with him alone first. Let me watch Noelle for a few minutes.” She reached for Noelle’s leash. “She’ll be fine.”
Yes, of course Noelle would be fine. She liked Dr. Margate and wagged when the end of her leash changed hands. I stood in the waiting room until they left through the side door leading to the exercise yard outside. Noelle’s tail was the last part of her to disappear, still giving its trademark slow, side-to-side swish.
Okay. Time to do this. No sense dragging things out.
I fortified myself with a deep breath, set my jaw with fierce determination to protect Noelle at any cost, and headed for exam room one.
He was sitting on a low bench against the wall, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped between them, looking expectantly in my direction when I pushed open the door. I hesitated, then offered a socially acceptable half-smile while I tried to figure out why I suddenly felt sucker-punched.
“Hello.” He stood slowly, unfolding his long frame from the bench. “Ms. Gibson?”
For some reason I’d had it in my head that he would be short, stocky, sporting a buzz cut and covered in military tattoos. The man who greeted me in Dr. Margate’s exam room was tall with dark hair hanging in his eyes and several years younger than I’d expected. Tattoos? I’d have to see under the rolled sleeves, but he didn’t seem like the type. Maybe. But why did I care what was going on under his shirt? Not like me. Not like me at all.
I nodded. Didn’t trust my voice. Yet.
“Thank you for meeting me. I wasn’t sure if….” His sentence died on the vine. He rubbed the back of his neck and stared at me with a pinched expression, like he had no idea what to say next.
Oh. I made him nervous, did I?
“If I give her back to you,” I said, emboldened by his hesitance. “How do I know she won’t end up in the same mess where I found her–hours from being destroyed in a kill shelter?”
He paled, and not just a little. Color faded from the tiny creases around his mouth and from the corners of his eyes, and he stared at me for a long second before he said anything.
“What?” His voice was quiet, lower than it had been a moment ago.
I refused to blink. “They didn’t tell you?”
“I knew she was in a shelter. But I didn’t know anything about….” Again his words trailed off, but this time it wasn’t hard to imagine why he couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought.
I didn’t keep talking, either. No need to make him squirm. It seemed real, this reaction from him–something like frustration but more desperate, much like the feeling I’d had last night when I found out Noelle might have to go back to him.
“Dr. Margate just told me that Noelle had been in a shelter, that you adopted her, and the microchip had migrated. She didn’t say a word about…the other.” He shifted position, and in that instant he looked like somebody I’d rather not cross. Feet shoulder width apart, arms folded across his chest–he towered over me by at least a foot. And he didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked like he could crush someone’s face with his bare hands, Game of Thrones style. “You think you can trust people.” His dark blue eyes flashed with outrage. “They didn’t even tell me they got rid of her. Nothing. Not one word about anything until I told them I was coming home.”
The left side of his face twitched. Just a little, but enough to catch my attention. I knew someone who had that tic once, whenever he got really upset about something. Like finding out his family was selling their time share and wouldn’t be back to the lake the following Christmas–
“I want to see her,” Davis said abruptly. “Is that possible? She’s here, right? You brought her?”
“Yes.” At that point I was ready for the introduction, too. I wanted to see their reaction to each other. My own heartbreak aside, he’d clearly invested a lot of emotions in this dog and she would certainly remember that. “I’ll go get her.”
Noelle padded alongside me back to the room, stoic as always, content, compliant, but…happy? I had always assumed that gratefulness for her freedom and her life were enough, but what if she still grieved for the owner who never came back for her? How could she know he still loved her, still existed? Well, one thing was sure–she was about to find out.
I opened the exam room door, expecting Noelle to walk through beside me. But she stopped on the threshold, and her tail wasn’t wagging.
Dr. Margate had followed us, and she put out a hand to keep the door from closing. We all just stood there, frozen, letting the seconds pass until Noelle let out a “whuff” that might have been a bark and might have been a sneeze but maybe was a little of both. She sank into a crouch that looked at first like she was about to spring back up and run. Instead, she let out a howl that sounded like it was ripped from her heart. And started belly-crawling toward Davis, who had dropped to his knees and started crawling in her direction at the same time.
I let go of the leash. Noelle wiggled upward onto Davis’s legs as far as she could before he sat on the floor and pulled her all the way into his lap. She lay there on her back, pink belly exposed, tail thumping madly on the tile as she licked his face between slobbery cries of joy.
“I’m so sorry, girl,” he mumbled into her fur. “I’m so sorry. I will never leave you again.”
I had seen enough. Now I just felt like a third wheel. I backed out of the room, along with Dr. Margate, and we retreated to the waiting area where we blinked at each other without words.
“She certainly seems to remember him,” the veterinarian said finally.
I nodded. What could I say? The truth was obvious. Noelle belonged to Davis. Not to me. And I wasn’t even sure I felt upset over losing her this way.
Dr. Margate gestured at the empty furniture in her waiting area. “Make yourself comfortable. Take your time deciding how you’re going to handle this. I’m going to grab a bite before my next patients get here. Thank you for…for…well, for doing the right thing. I know it means a lot to him.”
She left me alone in the waiting area but I didn’t sit. I walked to the window overlooking her small parking lot and stared at the Canada geese waddling around under some trees at the edge of the pavement. Migratory birds–, like my family had been. North for the summer, south for the winter. Year after year, Christmas after Christmas, without fail.
Staff Sergeant T.J. Davis.
I wondered what those initials stood for.
I didn’t have long to wait before he came out of the exam room, Noelle prancing happily by his side, looking up at him with a big goofy dog grin and wagging so hard her whole back end moved.
“Ms. Gibson.” He stopped beside me in front of the window. “I can’t thank you enough for–”
“Why did you name her Noelle?” I cut him off without apology. “And spell it that way?”
Eyes fixed on his dog, he didn’t look at me when he spoke. “When I was a kid, my folks used to bring my brothers and me down to spend our holidays here on the lake. There was a girl there, probably the best friend I ever had, and that was her name. Took me forever to learn how to spell it. About the time I finally figured out which letters went where, my folks sold our part of the lake house, and I never saw her again. Something about this dog reminded me of her, of the first Noelle, and I just started calling her that. It stuck.”
So quietly I almost couldn’t hear it myself, I spoke his name. “Tommy?”
His gaze shot up. And in that instant I knew. I smiled. Tommy smiled back, a lopsided flash of fish stories, dockside camping, and citronella torches, while Noelle stood between us slowly wagging her tail.