Pearl padded back to the two-tiered fountain in the center of the park, thoroughly winded, her muscles burning.
“Look at that, there’s a rare Blue Pearl in the fountain.”
“Herk! I thought I wouldn’t see you today,” she said, bouncing on her paws. “I’ve already run three laps.”
“That human-male you come here with, always makes you leave too soon. Don’t you have a Person?”
Her head cocked to the side. “A person?”
“You know, a non-canine pack member?” He glanced over his muscled shoulder at a human-female reading a book. “One that makes your heart feel like it’s going to burst with joy when they come home. One you’d do anything for? You don’t have that?”
“No. My human-male gives us food, trains us to run faster, and…” Her eyes dropped to her paws.
“What?” A growl rose in Herk’s throat, his body tensing. “He doesn’t train you with pain, does he? I’ll rip his throat out right now if he does.”
“Easy beast.” Her tail wagged. “It’s nothing like that. In fact he calls the five of us his crown jewels since we all have gemstone names. But we aren’t allowed ONLY to be racers, we’re expected to be breeding racers.”
“I see,” he said, his ears drooping. “Well, maybe the pups would have your gorgeous blue coat.”
“Maybe, but it’s degrading. When it’s our season he takes us to a freezing room, without any soft surfaces. Then he brings in a pompous hound that’s won all sorts of races. I’m pretty sure the human-male watches through the window, but I can never quite see through it to tell. But we’re supposed to… you know…”
“It’s cute how you can’t even say the word mate.” He nudged his shoulder into hers. “But isn’t that the way you rich canines do things?”
Her eyes dropped to her paws. “Just because that’s the racer way, doesn’t mean it’s right. We should be able to… let things happen naturally. Not because we must continue our champion bloodline.”
“You’re a champion greyhound huh?” He puffed his chest, stalking around her. “I could take you any day.”
She growled, baring her teeth, sheer panic speeding up her heart.
“Yep… I could make it to that line of trees before you could even lift a paw.”
Oh right, he was teasing.
“All right, house-pet. I’ll even give you a head start.”
He kissed her nose and darted off towards the trees.
A strange warmth spread through her. Canines didn’t kiss each other, did they? She would have to ask him later.
Her ears flattened. She sprung from the fountain, passing him in a second. Even though racing him might as well be racing a boulder, it was still fun.
“What took you so long, Muscles?”
“Warming up,” he panted, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. “Once more, that’s practice.”
She batted his head. “Yeah, you need lots of practice.”
He growled a puppy growl and lunged under her chest toppling her to the ground. She leapt out of the way before his jaws clamped on her neck, but his teeth gently caught her leg.
“Ha! Now you can’t run. You’re mine forever!”
If only that could be true.
She wriggled out of his grasp, loping off. “Not unless you can catch me!”
“See, I’m as fast as a greyhound,” he said, running up beside her.
“Of course you are.”
“No more biscuits for Herk,” he panted, flopping down on the shady grass.
He was such a refreshing change from the stoic canines she knew.
“I wish the human-male matched me with someone like you. The girls wouldn’t make fun of me and I wouldn’t be forced to retire.”
“That human is pushing you out of racing, all because you don’t want to mate in a vet’s office?!”
“Why do you think I’m allowed to come here? Its part of my retirement training so I can socialize with regular canines.” She stretched closer to him. “You know, the other racers made retirement sound terrible. But being allowed to come here and meeting you has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
A high pitched whistled interrupted. “Pearl… come!”
Herk’s amber eyes flicked to the human-male at the gate. “We could have a life of our own. We’d have to rely on ourselves, but we could be free.”
“I don’t know, I don’t-”
“Choose Pearl, freedom or breeding racer. Now!”
His tone seized her brain. She had to make a decision whether she wanted to or not.
“You,” she said. “Freedom.”
Herk dashed at the human the second the latch lifted. He snarled and growled, snapping his jaws. His shoulders drawn taught. The human-male backed away mumbling soothing phrases.
His command lit up her brain, erasing everything else.
She bolted past him, her muscles stretching and pulling harder than ever before.
Fatigue in her lungs begged her to stop. But Herk’s command held onto her brain, propelling her forward. Until the smell of humans—lots of humans—replaced his voice.
What a strange sensation, having her mind taken over by a single word. The human-male’s voice never did that.
Her eyes darted around. Buildings reached the sun. Hot pavement singed the pads of her feet. Cars honked. Humans’ tension twisted her stomach into knots. And the smells. The layers and layers of smells; humans, diesel, garbage, food.
Where was Herk?
Her snout lifted in the air trying to find his scent. Smoky meat filled her nose instead. Her stomach growled, her mouth watered. She tried to ignore it, she had to find Herk. But her nose betrayed her, directing her to a pack of humans taking food from a window.
She reached up, her teeth inches away from a plate of real meat-
A rolled newspaper smacked her on her nose and stars blinked before her eyes. She yelped and collided with more humans.
How did humans live without any room to even walk? How were they ever supposed to run?
She kept close to buildings trying to find her way back to the park. But with a sea of human legs and countless smells, the hope of finding anything familiar soon faded.
Instinct kicked in; food must be found.
Each time she followed her nose to another food window, she received the same treatment; smacked on the snout, yelled at, and kicked in the hindquarters.
What were canines supposed to eat? Herk would know if he were here.
She continued wandering through the streets, fear and anxiety making her pant as hard as Herk. The sun disappeared behind the buildings; cars still honked and the cool air made her shiver. More smells, more humans, more tension.
Why did she blindly follow his order? He never could’ve kept up with her at full speed. Now lost in this intense place, she had no hope of ever finding him. Why couldn’t she have done her duty and accepted her fate as a breeding racer in the first place? Then neither of them would be in this mess.
Suddenly, a lead slipped around her neck. Her eyes went wide, her heart raced in her chest. She tried to run but the leash cinched tight, cutting into her neck.
“Easy girl, don’t pull.” The smell of bleach and urine radiated off the human-male’s clothes, as he hoisted her into a kennel.
Sheer panic clutched her heart. She had heard of cars like this and the place it took lost canines, a place worse than death… Prison.
Now Herk was lost to her forever.
The days blurred together.
Stale, tasteless kibble, enough yard time to relive herself but not enough space for a sprint. Countless hours of canines’ shouts, threats, and pleas for release. Memories of Herk, the gripping ache in her heart that accompanied them. The scorching stench of bleach in her nose. More yard time and another bowl of stale, tasteless kibble.
No track, no sprinting, no sisters, no human… no Herk. All because she was too embarrassed to mate in a vet’s office.
Herk said those same words once. The ache in her heart gripped harder. She tucked herself tighter on the pillow, her sobs shaking her whole body.
Her gate opened. She didn’t care. The human-female rubbed her ears. She didn’t care. A lead slipped around her neck, the human-female urged her up. She didn’t care.
“Come on Pearl, you’re coming with me. Your asshole breeder may think you’re worthless and be fine with letting you waste away in here but I’m not.”
What was an ‘asshole’?
Her joints screamed at her. She would give anything to be allowed to sprint, to stretch out the knots, feel fresh air sailing up her nose.
The leash tugged.“No, this way.”
She sighed. This way meant a bath and those terrible orange crushers pinching off her toenails. The human-male at home may have forced her to mate, but at least he never tortured her with those things.
“It’s all right, come on.” The human-female smiled, leading Pearl past the humans guarding the front door… and into a car!
Her tail whipped against the window, she danced and twirled in the seat. Without thought, she kissed the human-female’s cheek. “You’re going to let me run!”
“All right, you can stick your head out, just don’t bark in my ear again.”
What did that me-
The window slid down!
She stuck her whole head out. Cold wind stung her eyes, the smell of dead leaves and impending snow rushed up her nose. The human-male would’ve never allowed this.
Herk would be adorable with his ears flapping… She pushed that thought away. This moment too perfect to be stained with grief.
She couldn’t remember that last time she felt this alive, even after the car stopped.
“Let’s go in the backyard before we get you something tasty to eat.” The human-female led her around the house.
Grass. Beautiful sweet smelling grass welcomed her. And fluttery, crunchy leaves—everywhere.
She shot off toward the fence, rounded a corner, dashed back at the human-female. And shot off again. If she angled herself at the corners, she could almost get to a full sprint. Her body felt lighter than air.
She rolled and twisted in the grass, dashed through piles of crispy leaves, ran until the cold burned her lungs and numbed her toes.
How could she ever repay the human-female?
“Come on Pearl. House! Dinnertime.”
That order tugged at the edges of her brain. Almost like Herk’s, that day at the park.
She raced up the steps her tail whipping her human-female’s leg. Now she understood what Herk meant by having a person.
The smell of juicy meat swarmed her nose, drawing her to the bowl. Each bite better than the last, she couldn’t eat the moist covered kibble fast enough.
Her human-female laughed, taking the bowl. “Let’s meet your housemate first, then you can have more later. I don’t want you to get sick.”
Delicious food, a person of her own, a yard with grass plus another canine to talk to? Life couldn’t get any better.
Or at least until she went inside the house.
She lunged at the canine in the wire kennel, her whole body filling with joy. “Herk!”
“I thought I’d never see you again.” Her snout squeezed between the kennel wires, kissing as much of his face as she could reach. “I missed you so much, I’m sorry I left you that day.”
“My beautiful Pearl I can’t believe you’re here.” He dug at the kennel latch. “Person, unlock this! Let me out. Come on Person!”
Pearl’s stomach twisted in a knot. “Herk, stop it! Please.”
His bright amber eyes flashed to hers. “What’s wrong? What’d I do?”
Person opened the latch; Herk flung the gate open. He kissed Pearl’s face, her ears, nuzzled his blocky head against her shoulder almost knocking her over.
“I missed you so much,” she said, leaning into his touch. His strength erased the fear and anxiety consuming her since that life-changing day in the park. “Yelling and digging at the gate like that reminded me of that horrible Prison.”
Person rubbed both of their ears. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you two getting along. I’m going to make dinner.”
Herk kissed Person’s hand.
Was Pearl supposed to do that too? It didn’t look a required gesture. Their person left before she could worry about it further.
“How did such a beautiful racer like you end up in Prison?” he said.
Pearl paced the soft floor, describing her journey since his command launched her out of the park.
Herk’s ears drooped. “I never meant for that to happen. I wanted us to have a life together, it never occurred to me they would lock up a racer.”
“Well they did. But it doesn’t matter anymore.” She curled up on the pillow and whimpered. “I couldn’t be your mate now even if I wanted to. The humans took that away too.”
He rested his head on hers. “Don’t cry. We can be broken, damaged canines together. Plus, we have Person.”
How could he possibly feel damaged? He had a person, a home, a place to run.
“It’s ironic,” he continued. “How we came from opposite worlds but the same human-female brought us together.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because she rescued me from being executed in that place when I was a young canine.” He kissed Pearl’s nose. “But not before the humans sterilized me too…”
She sat back other haunches. “Why would they want to execute you? You’re the most kind-hearted canine I’ve ever met.”
“Because I’m a pit bull. Most humans and many canines are afraid of my breed. But you never treated me like I was something to be feared, or loathed. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you.”
Her heart ached for him, he had survived so much real cruelty. But yet somehow still had the capacity to love life. She nuzzled his cheek.
“You must think the worst of me,” she said. “I felt sorry for myself because I thought being a breeding racer was degrading.” Her eyes snapped to his, her heart soaring. “You were already sterilized when we met. All talks of a life together had nothing to do with my bloodline.”
“Yep.” His tail thumped against the floor. “All that mattered was this beautiful, lighting quick canine, treated a mutt like me with the same respect and awkward politeness as you did any other canine.”
She kissed his nose, his cheeks, nuzzled his ear. “I love you Hercules, I will never lose you again.”
“One thing’s for certain, that heartless human-male will always be missing one of his crown jewels. Because I will never let my Blue Pearl go again.”