“Fetch,” Daddy said, tossing the frisbee. We watched it leave his hand and begin its flight across the park like a majestic bird without wings. A mass hysteria of barking rose, and we were off, sprinting and jostling for position. We could easily be mistaken for a pack of young pups, but we were a group of middle-aged lady dogs, still imbued with a strong sense of competitiveness.
“Get it Cindee,” Rapi called from the relative safety of Daddy’s side.
You see, Rapi was unlike the rest of us. For one thing, Rapi is a he, and for another, Rapi is a cat. Not just any cat, but an out of shape orange cat with a belly that sways from side to side when he moves. Rapi had two concerns about taking part in the game of fetch. Even though he was big for a cat, he felt very small compared to the dogs. These weren’t Poodles or Maltese. No, these were some big girls. Rottweilers, Boxers, Shepherds and little old me, a Chocolate Lab. The cat had a legitimate fear of being trampled in the heat of competition. His other fear? That he would fall over from exhaustion before he reached the other end of the park and die of embarrassment. Running is not his thing.
Junie, an eight-year-old Rottweiler caught sight of the frisbee beginning its descent and positioned herself to make the catch. She smiled triumphantly, then opened her mouth wide to make the grab, when out of nowhere, Chantal, a sleek muscular German Shepherd leapt into the air snatching the disc a split second before it reached Junie’s mouth, then completed the maneuver with a graceful landing. Everyone gasped, except for Junie, who complained that she was cheated.
“Wowwie Chantal, that was pawesome,” I barked joyously, impressed with her athleticism. There was no way I would be able to do that. Not even if I had two good knees.
We were all laughing and teasing Junie as we trotted back across the park until a black Nissan rolled to a stop at the traffic light in front of the park. We all stopped to look at the tan and white shih-tzu staring back at us from the passenger window.
“Who is that?” I asked sizing up the little dog.
“She is new to the neighborhood. I hear she is a homewrecker, only interested in the boys, if you know what I mean,” Chantal said, nodding towards the dog in the car.
“Really,” I asked, kind of surprised.
“She looks so, I don’t know, sad,” Rapi added.
“It’s true! Madge the pitbull lives next door to her. Madge says this dog has left a long line of puppies across the state. No morals,” Chantal added shaking her head.
The light changed and the car pulled away with the shih-tzu shifting position so she could watch us out the back window. Part of me felt weird.
“C’mon Cindee,” Junie’s voice called me back to the moment and the game.
Rapi looked at me and shrugged.
“Gotta go,” I barked excitedly, before turning and racing back to the starting line.
Rapi watched me go for a second, then turned and focused on the black Nissan until it slowed and turned right at the corner, then faded out of sight behind some shrubbery.
“Strange,” the big orange cat muttered to himself.
“That was a ton of fun,” I gushed to Rapi on the walk back home.
“But you didn’t catch one frisbee,” my little orange friend reminded me.
“It doesn’t matter, just playing the game with friends, that is what makes it fun,” I explained.
It was true too. Winning and losing, they really aren’t important. Don’t get me wrong, of course its great to win, but I wasn’t a puppy anymore and I realize that just being able to play is winning.
“I am sorry that you don’t get to play with us,” I said glancing at Rapi as we made a right hand turn down our street.
“Hey, hey guys,” Madge called from the upstairs window as we strolled past her house. We stopped to waive, and she returned the pleasantry.
We could see our home at the end of the block, and I was ready to be there. I had big plans to run upstairs and climb into the bed, maybe even burrow under the covers and have a nice long nap.
My plans were a little delayed by an unusual detour. Daddy had stopped in front of the two-story brick house next to Madge’s.
“Good morning, welcome to the neighborhood,” he said warmly to a thin older woman with short grey hair.
“Thank you. You are the first neighbors we have had a chance to meet,” she answered with a smile.
I looked at Rapi, perturbed by this unexpected turn of events, and was surprised to see him scowling at me.
“Be neighborly,” he whispered, reminding me of how awkward we felt when we first moved to this street.
My head snapped in the direction of the woman. Something had scurried behind her, a giant rat perhaps. I was just about to warn her when a head filled with unruly hair peeked around her legs.
“It’s the dog,” Rapi said, nodding to the little creature, who stood trembling behind her human.
“Why is it shaking like a chihuahua?” I asked, confused by the little dog, which wasn’t much bigger than Rapi.
“Dunno,” Rapi said, unable to refrain from staring.
“Mitzi is a puppy mill survivor.”
Both Rapi and I jerked our heads in the direction of the silver haired lady. My thoughts returned to the conversation with Chantal and the gossip that Madge had been spreading, and I didn’t feel well at all.
“Hi Mitzi, my name is Cindee,” I said gently.
“This is Rapi,” I added nodding towards the orange cat.
“We are friends,” Rapi added in a soothing voice. I let Rapi take over because he had the perfect voice and temperament to handle the situation.
“Nice to meet you,” he said a deep non-threatening latin accent.
He took a step forward and held out his paw. Mitzi took one tentative step forwards, then stopped to sniff. The cat smiled and tilted his head to the left. He was quite the charmer when he wanted to be and was doing a perfect job disarming her fears. She took another stop, then one more.
“H – h -hello,” she stuttered, reaching out her arm and stretching it as far as she could to just cover the distance. Rapi leaned forward just a tad more until their paws touched. Mitzi trembled for a second then steadied herself.
“Hi,” I said, mimicking Rapi’s posture. Having gained some confidence from Rapi the little shih-tzu came forward and touched paws with me.
“Well, it’s been nice meeting you,” Daddy said to the silver haired lady.
I looked at Rapi, trying to telegraph to him that we were out of time, but he already sensed it. The cat turned towards the nervous dog, smiled warmly and looked deeply into her eyes.
“Why don’t you come to the park tomorrow and meet our friends. You can sit and watch with me,” Rapi offered.
“I – I – I’d like that,” Mitzi answered, a spark of happiness lit her eyes.
“Cool,” the cat answered, resisting the gentle tug on his leash.
“We gotta go, but we will see you tomorrow,” I called over my shoulder.
“T-t-tomorrow,” the shih-tzu called back.
Casting one last glance over my shoulder, I caught sight of one happy shi-tzu dancing around her Momma’s feet.
“Go get it,” Daddy called out letting the frisbee sail across the park. Everyone took off after it. Everyone that is, except me. I just stood there staring off into space.
“Cindee! Yo Cindee, what’s up?” Rapi called out.
I turned to face him, and soon realized I wasn’t looking at him. No, it was more like I was looking through him. That was enough to get him to stand up and trot over.
“Brown sugar,” he said gently, while trying to capture my attention.
“Hmmm, oh sorry, I guess I am a little out of sorts today,” I answered, trying to be honest with him.
“Mitzi?” he asked.
“Yeah, where is she,” I asked, not expecting Rapi to have an answer, but feeling the need to verbalize my concerns.
An explosion of noise erupted from the other end of the park. Apparently, Chantal had come down with the frisbee again, and Beatrice, a black and white bulldog, was upset and was expressing her belief that she had been cheated. Her voice carried across the park and she was using, how shall I say, colorful terms to describe her feelings.
The pack of dogs jogged over to us, discussing the toss and catch with joy and laughter. Even Beatrice had calmed down and was now taking part in the jawing.
“Did you see that Cindee?” Chantal asked, her face beaming.
“Wow, Beatrice had it in her mouth and Chantal just ripped it away from her. It was awesome,” Junie roared with pleasure.
I was distracted though, because a block away, a little silver haired lady and her shih-tzu had rounded the corner and were headed our way.
“Here she comes,” Rapi yelled while rising to his feet and weaving his body between my legs.
“I see,” I answered.
The dogs turned to see what had grabbed our attention and the conversation immediately shifted.
“Look it’s that goofball dog that can’t even talk,” Junie said, pointing in the direction of Mitzi.
“Yeah, she is a freak, acts like she’s never seen a butterfly before,” Chantal barked out a laugh. The rest of the girls followed suit.
Mitzi overheard the dogs making fun of her and stopped in her tracks when she saw them laughing. I stood there dumbfounded, unable to believe my friends were acting this way.
“Cindee,” Rapi hissed.
“What,” a barked under my breath.
“Mitzi,” he whispered, nodding in her direction.
“Right,” I said, reaching out my paw and patting the orange cat on the top of the head.
“Mitzi,” I called out to the little dog with the out-of-control hair.
She looked at me with a deer in the headlights kind of stare.
“We have been waiting for you,” I said trotting over to meet her.
The back of my head ached, and I felt heat rising in my cheeks and ears. I imagined it was from the dogs boring into my back. Mitzi looked at me like I had a screw loose. Maybe I did, but I was not going to give in to ignorant and hurtful behavior.
“C’mon. let’s go meet my friends,” I said, not letting my agitation show.
“O-o-okay,” Mitzi stammered and together we were off.
I smiled as we approached the three scowling dogs with Mitzi standing right next to me.
“Hi Mitzi,” Rapi greeted the dog with a smile and a swaying tail. The dog responded with a grin.
“Ladies, I would like you to meet my friend Mitzi, she is a puppy mill survivor,” I said introducing the shih-tzu. Everyone’s mouth fell open, and the scowls quickly disappeared.
“Mitzi, these are our friends, Chantal, Junie and Beatrice,” each dog offered a paw as they were introduced.
“N-n-nice to meet you,” Mitzi said with a smile, and eyes filled with wonder.
“Let’s do something we can all play,” Rapi offered.
“Tag?” Junie asked.
“I-I-I don’t know how. They never let me out of my cage to do anything,” the shih-tzu said nervously.
“Never,” Junie asked.
“Oh, you poor thing!” Beatrice howled.
Rapi and I sat in front of the big glass doors looking out on the back yard, watching as the wind rustled the leaves and the sun began to set.
“What an amazing day,” Rapi exclaimed, letting out a deep lungful of air.
“It was,” I answered. I wanted to say more, but really there was nothing left to say.
We had learned so much about puppy mill survivors and the terrible lives that they lead. None of us knew that Mitzi had spent the first ten years of her life locked up in a little cage that she never left, not even to go for a walk or to go to the bathroom. In those years, she hadn’t seen the sun or the moon or the stars that Rapi and I so love to look at. I could go on and on thinking about all the terrible things, but then, I don’t know if I could keep my own sanity.
“How can people be such monsters,” Rapi asked, as if he were reading my thoughts.
“Its not just people Rapi, you saw the way those dogs talked about Mitzi before they knew here. We all have monsters inside of us just waiting to come out.” I said looking over at Rapi, who was staring deep into my eyes.
“How do we keep the monsters from showing up,” Rapi asked.
“I don’t know. I think that if we embrace love and try to live by loving others, even the ones that aren’t lovable, we will keep our monsters locked up. But then, I am only a simple dog.”
Rapi thought about my words for a moment then turned to look out the window until the sun had sunk below the horizon and the last rays of day faded away.