I never had a dog growing up, though I desperately wanted one. I grew up in an apartment and we weren't supposed to have pets. If our landlord had only known about the zoo we kept over the years! But of course, dogs were out. You can hide a hamster in your pocket (I did, once) and even stuff a turtle under your shirt (did that, too), you can dig up worms in the back yard for your pet frog (you bet I did!), but you can't exactly hide a dog. Especially when your landlord keeps outdoor cats and watches over the yard like a hawk. So I never did have a dog; not until I went away to college and set up camp in a place even less suitable for pets.
It was actually my last semester of college, and I was broke. I found a hole-in-the-wall hotel room that I could rent for the semester on very limited funds. My temporary home consisted of a single room, filled mostly by a bed and one chair, with an adjoining bathroom. I made do. The room was furnished with the tiniest refrigerator in the world and even a microwave, and bonus, I got a free continental breakfast every morning! I practically lived on hoarded bagels.
I was walking back from class along a busy street when the sound of squealing tires brought my heart to my throat. I watched, helplessly stunned, as two large dogs darted through traffic, one of which was a huge basset hound that made it to the other side and quickly disappeared through a patch of trees. The other, a yellow lab, wasn't as street smart, and got turned around by all the cars honking and people yelling. So I called to her, slapping my thighs like a fool and avoiding all the angry stares of those who assumed she was my dog. And to my surprise, she came, wagging her tail as though I was a long lost friend. And then she followed me home.
I opened the door to my little hotel room with the no-pet policy stated right on its plaque, and she bounded in. Her presence was enormous in the cramped quarters, her thick tail pounding like a drum against the thin walls. She stood still and panting, gazing up at me with her mouth hanging open in a huge, happy grin, and right then I knew I was in trouble. Not having any identification on her, I decided to call her Hazel, after the color of her eyes. She made herself comfortable in the backseat of my Olds as I drove to the store and spent money I didn't have on a leash and dog food. After a bowl full of water and enough off-brand dog food to feed a cow, we took a long walk, sticking to the grass where I hoped she would do her business. But for that entire first day, she was so starved nothing happened. The pads on her feet were burnt down to sores from constantly running on pavement, and she limped a little, one of her hips going bad. She wasn't young, I realized, and she'd been out on the streets for some time. Reluctant as I was, I did my duty, hanging posters on every street and around campus. I made phone calls and asked around, but no one came forward to claim her, and for the next couple of days, she was mine.
Of course I couldn't keep her; the hotel manager made that quite clear lest I have any hopeful delusions about it. But every time I came home from class, there she was, her tail thumping on the thin carpet, her mouth cupping my hand in a gentle doggy greeting. I was starving and couldn't afford gas, but I kept her fed, and we walked, covering more ground around that town than I'd ever done on my own. I no longer felt the need to peer over my shoulder, making sure I wasn't being followed by strange men (as had happened before). I felt alive, and for a few days, happy.
Once her leash slipped off and she stopped where she was and just looked at me as if to ask, "Are you going to put that back on, or what?" This dog wanted a home; she wanted to be loved and cared for, and I think she knew I needed as much from her. But I couldn't rightfully keep her. I tried. I found a couple of hotels that allowed animals, but weren't exactly friendly to poor college students who wanted more than a night's stay. I sought friends who could keep her for a few weeks, but most were renting in places that didn't allow pets. At last I made a call to a no-kill animal shelter, and I swear the moment I got off the phone, Hazel hung her head and her tail stopped wagging. I could hardly speak as I brought her in, and the lady there put her arm around me as we watched Hazel introduce herself to the other lost souls, wriggling and writhing with joy at the sight of a new playmate. I was too choked up to say goodbye, and limped home on gas fumes and tears.
Hazel was picked up by her previous owners, I found out after a week of obsessive calling, and she escaped from them yet again. Several friends and even the hotel manager told me they'd seen her loose on the streets, but she never came back to my door. Maybe she knew if she showed up, I'd have to take her back to the shelter. Maybe she knew there was nothing I could do. I'll never understand her loyalty to me during the few days I called her mine, when she could have taken off at any time. I don't know what a friendly dog like her was doing out on the street, a dog who so wanted to be loved, or what kind of situation she kept escaping from. The people at the animal shelter assured me that her owners would be heavily fined if she was brought back and they came to claim her once more. But I never heard from them again, and after searching desperately, I never did find her.
I finished my senior project, gave my final speech, and graduated. My boyfriend and I reconciled and later married. I moved out to Wyoming where we began our life together, and started a family. Now I show the only two photos I have of Hazel to my little boys and tell them her story. To this day, she haunts me. During those few days we shared together, she never once barked, but always greeted me with silent joy, her mouth open in a huge smile and her tail thumping against my leg. Her steady, loving presence and sudden absence left me at a loss. I felt as though she'd been no more than a ghost.
It was her spirit that inspired my short story, Cinder, in Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales. Like Hazel, Cinder is an ethereal companion and a girl's best friend. Like Hazel, she doesn't hold a grudge, but overwhelms her new owners with love despite all she's been through. And just like Hazel, Cinder appears out of hopelessness, and is gone again, like something out of a fairy tale. But at least for Cinder, I made sure she had a happy ending.