The dog was beautiful—a black and white husky with ice blue eyes. He seemed a little skittish, but not unfriendly or aggressive.
"Hey there." Eric held his hand out for the dog to sniff. "No microchip, huh?"
"Nope," said the guy who'd brought the dog in. "No tags, no collar, my mom's vet says no chip. I've never seen him around the neighborhood before or anything, but I dunno, I just moved in a couple months ago. I put up flyers and stuff and kept him for the night, but if my landlord found out I had a dog in the house my ass would be grass."
Eric moved to rub the dog's chest, and he didn't seem to mind.
"He definitely looks like he has a home," Eric said. "He doesn't look malnourished, and his coat is gorgeous; someone's been brushing him and giving him regular baths. He even smells good. I'm sure his owner'll turn up."
The guy shifted uncomfortably. "So like, how long do they have? It's not like, if they don't show up in three days you'll kill him, is it?"
"Oh, no, no," Eric said, standing back up. "The Sharon Animal Rescue Center is an open admissions shelter, which means we'll take any animal brought in, and that means we do run out of room now and then. But the few dogs we do have to put down are mostly ones who have health or behavioral problems too extreme for us to deal with. So far, this boy definitely doesn't seem to fall into that category. Plus we work with breed rescues in the area, so if he's still here in a couple weeks I'll call the husky rescue and as soon as they have a foster home open they'll pull him. A lot of the purebreds who come through here wind up with rescues like that. I don't think you need to worry about us havin' to put him down, unless he's got some major health problem he's hiding from us."
"Cool," the guy said, nodding. "Okay, uh, you need anything else from me?"
"If you're done with that paperwork, that's it."
The guy scratched the dog's head one more time before heading out the door with a quick wave. Eric took the dog's leash and led him to the intake wing. The dog slunk along next to him, tail between his legs. When Eric opened the door, he shrank back at the sudden sound of five other dogs barking.
"Hey now, it'll be okay," Eric said. "I know you're scared 'cause you can't find your people, and it's a little loud and crazy here, but we'll take good care of you. I'm sure you'll be going home in no time."
The dog looked up at him doubtfully, but when Eric walked through the door, he followed. Despite his obvious wariness, the dog walked right into his pen, but immediately retreated to the far corner.
"What a good boy!" Eric praised him and held out a treat. When the dog slowly came back to investigate it, he squatted down, and the dog let him scratch his ear as he ate. "Okay, I'll be back in a little while to feed you. Our vet's coming in this afternoon, so you'll get a check-up then and some shots. I know it's kinda scary here with everyone else makin' such a fuss, and the decor does leave something to be desired. But once you've got a clean bill of health, I can at least move you into a run where you can go outside and get away from some of the noise, okay?"
The husky sighed as though he could understand what Eric had just said and was resigned to his fate.
"Oh, you are gonna be a character, I can tell," Eric said as he stood up to close the pen. "I bet you'll come outta that shell in no time."
That afternoon, after all the new intakes had gotten checkups and a full round of vaccines, Eric started moving them into the indoor/outdoor runs. When he got to the husky, he didn't take him straight to his new run yet, instead walking him outside to the training yard. Just on the walk there, Eric could tell he was well-trained, with some of the best leash manners he'd ever seen. He completely ignored the other dogs and stayed right by Eric every step of the way, even with a totally slack leash.
Once Eric closed them in the training yard and unhooked the leash, the husky ventured away from him, sniffing around the bottom of the fence. When he got to the far end, Eric called out "Here, boy!" The dog immediately turned from his sniffing and trotted over to Eric.
"Very impressive," Eric said as the husky stood in front of him.
"Hmmm, now what are we gonna call you 'til your owner gets here?" Eric said, mostly to himself. The dog tilted his head a little, as though he were listening. "I'm sure you've never pulled a sled in your life, but unfortunately for you, you're a husky and I'm into both figure skating and hockey, so you're just bound to get some kind of icy name out of that combo."
The dog took a few steps forward and sat down directly in front of him, eyes never leaving Eric's face. It was unsettling, really—he definitely didn't seem aggressive, but Eric had never had a dog focus on him quite so intently before; at least, not when he wasn't offering it food.
"Huh." Eric reached out and scratched the husky's ear. "Well, let's see, what sort of figure skating names could we give you… Axel, Salchow, Biellmann…" The husky looked away. "Toe loop?" He barely glanced at Eric, but Eric grinned as he swore he could feel the disdain in it. "All right, all right, you're picky, huh? Okay, well, maybe we should keep it simple. Puck?"
To Eric's surprise, the husky looked right at him and barked.
He leaned forward and nosed at Eric's hand until Eric started petting him, laughing.
"Wow. I wonder if that's your real name. Okay. Puck. You are a weird dog, Puck, but I think I like you. Now, let's see…"
Eric ran through a few basic commands, and Puck handled them like a pro. He also had no problems with give or leave it when Eric tried those with some toys and treats. Then Eric tried whatever other commands he could think of—shake, speak, roll over, play dead. He couldn't find a single thing that stumped Puck.
"I have a feeling you do agility trials or something," Eric said as he pulled a tennis ball out of the yard toy box. "You might be the best-trained stray I've seen come through here. Now let's have a little fun before I put you in your new run."
As it turned out, Puck played fetch just like he did everything else—with a quiet intensity and precision that left Eric feeling a little off-balance. He wagged his tail a little, but other than that seemed to view fetching as a very serious task. After a few tosses, Eric tried to get him to show some excitement over the game, waving the ball at him and talking excitedly.
At first, Puck just kept his eyes on the ball, waiting for it to be thrown again. Then he looked at the rest of Eric—his face, the way he was bent down and wiggling—and Eric swore he could see a light bulb go off over the dog's head before he dropped into a play bow.
"There you are!" Eric said, and threw the ball again. When he brought it back, Eric told him, "Y'know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you forgot to bow, and just now, I didn't get you excited so much as I reminded you to do it. You are an odd dog, Mr. Puck."
Puck blinked at him, then barked at the ball and dropped into another bow.
"That's the spirit!"
"That Puck sure is an odd pup." Eric shook his head as he and Ford cleaned out the runs a few days later. "He's really growin' on me, though."
"That's because you're the only person he likes," Ford teased.
"He's not aggressive or anything," Eric replied defensively. Puck was a good dog, and Eric certainly didn't want his personality quirks to cost him a home if his owner didn't show. "Just… idiosyncratic. And you know he's fine with the rest of the staff, even if he does like me best."
Puck didn't behave badly for the other staff, but he was never excited to see any of them like he was with Eric. When Eric came to his door, he always came right over, wagging his tail, tongue lolling out, begging for a scratch behind the ears. Eric wasn't sure if it was his homemade dog treats, which Puck seemed to like even more than most of the dogs, or the fact that Eric talked to him so much.
In that, Eric knew he was a bit odd himself. Most of the other staff and volunteers would say a few cheerful words to the dogs, but he was the only one to keep up the constant stream of chatter. Some dogs didn't like when he did that, while other dogs seemed to find it comforting. Puck, on the other hand, seemed to listen raptly to whatever Eric had to say, sometimes even appearing to react to things he couldn't possibly have understood. Eric figured his owner was probably talkative as well, and he missed it.
Puck seemed especially excited when Eric would prattle on about hockey. He'd recently signed up to play with a beer league in the fall, so it was on his mind and now that he'd named Puck Puck it seemed like a natural topic of conversation.
Eric was surprised when Puck's owner still hadn't appeared by the fifth day. Given how well-groomed and well-trained Puck was, he'd assumed that any owner who took that kind of care of their dog would be frantic to find him. He sure would've been if he lost a dog that great. As he changed Puck's paperwork to put him on the adoptable list, Eric felt a little guilty. While he should've been hoping Puck was adopted to a loving home as quickly as possible, deep down he had to admit that he'd rather he stuck around for a little longer.
Puck being adopted quickly, it turned out, was not something Eric had to worry about. Being the gorgeous dog that he was, he was immediately popular with potential adopters, but most didn't make it as far as taking him out of the run. With non-Eric staff and volunteers, he would be unenthusiastic but cooperative, but when visitors came by his run he would retreat to the back corner and lie or sit facing away from them. For many, that was enough to put them off. They would coo over how pretty he was, but they wanted a dog who would run up to them and greet them excitedly, and there were plenty of those to go around.
The few who did take him out fared no better. Again, he wasn't aggressive or badly behaved; he just clearly did not want to be there. When the staff or volunteer went to take him out, at first he'd balk, trying to stay put. Once they coaxed him out, he'd stick close to them while they walked him and the potential adopters to a play yard, ignoring the people who were actually there to see him.
Once he was closed in the yard with the visitors, he'd retreat to a corner to sulk. He never growled or snapped at anyone, he just completely ignored them, not even looking their way when they would pet him. The only exception was children; with children he still wouldn't be enthusiastic but he would be… polite. He'd look at them and respond to petting, though he still wouldn't fetch or run around, wouldn't even wag his tail, and if he was out with them for too long he'd eventually retreat to a corner. All of this added up to a dog that nobody wanted to take home.
"You know, I think he's still just a mite depressed," Eric told more than one visitor. "Someone brought him in a week ago as a stray, and I think he had a good home before that he's still pining for. He'll warm up."
To Ford he said, "He's one smart cookie; I think he can tell these people are thinkin' about takin' him home and he just doesn't want them. He wants his people to come get him."
By day nine of Puck's stay, Eric was seriously weighing the idea of adopting him himself instead of calling the husky rescue at the end of the week. He wasn't a hundred percent sure he could afford the vet bills, and he probably didn't really have time for a dog on top of his skating and baking and the job and now hockey… and, of course, school work… so probably not. He reminded himself that if shelter workers took home every dog they bonded with, they'd all wind up hoarders. But he couldn't get over how intense and intelligent Puck was, and how attached he seemed to be to Eric himself over anyone else. Eric had to admit he was pretty attached to Puck, too.
On day ten, though, he answered the phone to a slightly harried-sounding man.
"Hey, have you guys gotten in a stray husky lately? Black and white? Blue eyes?"
"Why, yes, in fact, we have!" Eric exclaimed, hoping this really was Puck's owner. "He's been here a while actually, a week and a half. We put him up for adoption five days ago—"
"What? Fuck me sideways, really? He got adopted five days ago?"
"We put him up for adoption five days ago, sir, but lucky for you nobody's adopted him yet."
"Thank fuck. I'll be down ASAP." The guy hung up before Eric could say another word.
Eric had just started feeding the cats barely twenty minutes later when the bell over the front office door jangled wildly. Before he could even close the cage someone was frantically calling out, "Hello? Anyone around? Hello?"
He rushed out to find a man around his own age with long hair and a mustache, wearing cutoff jeans, a denim American flag vest, and sunglasses, which he pushed up on top of his head when he saw Eric.
"Hi, how can—"
"I called a little while ago, about a husky? Please tell me he's still here, man."
"Oh, yeah! Come on back with me, we'll see if he's the one you're lookin' for. I hope so, honestly, I think Puck misses home something fierce—"
"Puck?" The man squinted at Eric.
"Oh, sorry! That's what we've been calling him, I'm sure it's not his real name. He seems to like it real well, though, so I thought maybe—" He was cut off by the man laughing so hard he doubled over.
"Oh my—that is—holy shit, bro." He straightened up, wiping at his eyes and still chuckling a little. "He likes the name Puck, huh? Yeah, that's Jack, all right."
"Jack? Is that his name?"
"That it is. Where is he?"
"Oh, right. This way!" Eric started to lead the man back toward the indoor runs. "Well that makes sense, then, Puck does sound an awful lot like Jack."
For some reason, the man laughed again. "Puck sounds an awful lot like Jack," he said to himself, shaking his head. "Oh, that's classic." He noticed Eric looking at him funny. "Sorry, bro, it's not you. It's just, we—uh, I play hockey, so like. Appropriate, right?"
"Oh, you do?" Eric said as he opened the door to the runs. The guy flinched at the sudden increase in noise. "I just signed up for a hockey team myself." Eric raised his voice a little to be heard over the dogs.
"Sweet, man, where at?"
"Oh, just a beer league at the local rink. Not here, over in—oh, here we are!" He stopped in front of Puck's—Jack's—door, though Jack was in the outdoor part of the run. "Hang on just one sec." Eric slipped into the run and squatted down to peer through the little dog-sized door to the outside. "Puck! Er, Jack! Here, boy!"
As usual, at the sound of Eric's voice Jack scampered back inside to see him. But as soon as he saw the man with the mustache, all thoughts of Eric were forgotten. He ran right up to the door of the pen and jumped up, barking and wiggling—this guy was clearly the person he'd been waiting for.
Eric laughed. "Wow, he sure missed you! Okay, let me get a leash on him before I open the door so we don't lose him all over again."
As if he understood, Jack dropped back down so his front paws were on the floor again and stood still while Eric hooked up the leash, though his eyes never left his owner.
When Eric opened the door to the pen, Jack just about bowled the man over. The feeling was apparently mutual, given the way the man hugged him and ruffled his fur.
"Jesus, Jack! I've been looking all over for you, brah! How the fuck did you get all the way to Sharon, anyhow?" Jack barked. "Never mind, we'll talk later."
Eric raised an eyebrow as he closed the door to the pen, but didn't say anything. He was used to people being weird when it came to their pets. "Well, let's get you checked out, then!"
He led them back to the front office and pulled out the appropriate paperwork.
"Let's see. Our usual reclamation fee is based on how long the dog's been here, but since he's been here for ten days I could probably let you get away with just paying the adoption fee of $200."
"Damn," the guy said, shaking his head. He pointed at Jack. "You better pay me back, buddy." Jack just wagged his tail.
Eric snorted and took the guy's debit card.
While he was running it, Ford happened to come through the office. She took one look at Jack and his owner and stopped short.
"Holy crap! A person Puck likes as much as Bitty?"
"Bitty?" The mustached guy raised an eyebrow.
"That'll be me," Eric said, handing him the PIN pad with a shrug. "I was the one who processed Jack for intake, and I guess he imprinted on me or something. He hasn't been aggressive with anyone, just… not terribly friendly."
"Jack?" Now Ford looked confused.
"Puck's real name is Jack," Eric explained, "and this is his owner."
"Ohhhh." To Eric's surprise, Jack went over to Ford and nosed at her hand until she scratched him behind the ear. "Wow. I guess now that he's got you back, he's not worried about being adopted out."
Jack's owner narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean by, he's not worried—"
"Oh, that's what we've been saying," Ford explained. "We think he's been so unfriendly to everyone—especially the people coming to look at dogs to adopt—because he's noticed that other dogs go home with people and he's not interested in going home with anyone but you."
"Not interested in going home with anyone but me," Jack's owner said, looking amused. "Or… Bitty, apparently?"
Something about the way the guy looked at him made Eric blush. "Lucky for you, I'm not sure I have time for a dog right now, or I would have been tempted to adopt him, let me tell you. Smartest dog I've seen come through here, and you've got him trained so well. I'm assuming he does agility trials or something."
"Something like that," the guy said with a grin Eric couldn't interpret, then he focused back on the paperwork he was filling out.
Ford headed down the hall with a wave. Eric came around the counter to pet Jack one last time. Jack immediately came over and leaned against his legs while he ran his hands through all that thick, glossy fur.
He was going to miss Jack in a way he didn't usually miss dogs once they were adopted out. He'd been working there for nearly a year, and sure, there'd been dogs he'd gotten to know, dogs he'd been sad to see leave. This felt different. He'd almost say it felt like Jack was supposed to be his dog, not this guy's, but that was ridiculous.
"There you go," Jack's owner said, pushing the completed paperwork down the counter toward Eric. "Anything else?"
Eric grabbed the papers and glanced through them, making sure everything was in order.
"I think that's it, Mr. Knight," he said. The guy had only filled in the initial B. as his first name.
"Call me Shitty," Mr. Knight said, holding a hand out for Eric to shake. Eric took it, slightly bemused.
"Um, okay?" he said, pretty sure he would not be calling a customer Shitty. "At any rate, looks like it's all in order. It's been a pleasure having Jack here, but I'm glad he's going home. Can I say one thing, though?"
"What's that?" Mr. Knight asked as he clipped his own leash to Jack's collar.
"We do discounted microchipping here on the weekends, and I hope you'll consider it so a shelter can call you immediately if he gets lost again. And I would really recommend having him neutered. It would reduce the odds of him running off like this again, plus there are health benefits, and of course, it would help cut down on the number of homeless puppies shelters have to deal with."
Mr. Knight's face contorted like he was trying not to laugh, while Jack suddenly walked away and hid near the door, behind the bend in the counter.
"I wouldn't worry about that," Mr. Knight said, letting a small chuckle escape. "He's, uh, got a medical condition. Trust me, he won't be making any puppies."
"Oh…kay," Eric said slowly. Their vet had deemed Jack completely healthy, but Eric supposed she hadn't checked for infertility. "Well, anyhow, as much as I like him, I hope he doesn't wind up back here."
"I'm sure he won't," Mr. Knight said, and threw Eric a wink as he walked Jack out the door.