Chapter 1 Chapter 1
ELMER LOVED LOTS of things—belly rubs, ear scratches, squishy toys that squeaked when he chewed on them. But his favorite was definitely hearing the scoop, scoop sound that meant Danny and Ron, the humans who ran the dog rescue where he lived, were awake and making breakfast.
“Good morning, Elmer!” Danny unlatched Elmer’s crate and put a silver bowl filled with food inside. Elmer gave Danny’s hand a quick lick and wagged his tail before he started eating. “Aw, I love you, too,” Danny said.
Buster, the brown-and-white basset hound with the droopy eyes, was still snoring away in a bed by the fireplace. But most of the others stirred the moment the light in the kitchen blinked on. Elmer could hear Lucy’s high-pitched yip from the crate above his and Momo’s satisfied snuffles and grunts from the end of the hallway. Elmer wasn’t the only one who loved digging in to the feast every morning, but he was one of the few who had to have special food that was soft and easy to chew.
After breakfast Danny opened the dogs’ crates and led them to the backyard.
“All right, go play!” he said, his grin crinkling the corners of his blue eyes.
Elmer didn’t hesitate. He liked showing Danny and Ron how good he was at running across the fresh green grass, with his long hair blowing in the wind. On his little dachshund legs, he could run even faster than Joey, the Jack Russell terrier.
Elmer trotted around the large yard, stopping only long enough to sniff Charlie the Chihuahua and bat a lime-green tennis ball with his paws. All the playing made him thirsty. Most days were pretty sunny and hot in South Carolina, but Danny and Ron made sure the dogs had lots of shady spots to rest and plenty to drink. Elmer padded over to one of the bowls of water that were tucked against the side of the redbrick house. After lapping up a few sips, he peered down into the bowl. When the ripples stilled, he could see his own reflection in the water. He had been born with a misshapen mouth that made it hard to eat, and not long ago, he could barely see out of his right eye. It took six surgeries and weeks of wearing a cone around his neck, but the doctors had fixed his jaw and saved his eye. His lips no longer closed, he was missing teeth, and his long tongue hung from the side of his mouth. But he had survived.
Ron and Danny told Elmer all the time that he was a good boy, a beautiful dog who would find his forever home any day now. But when he looked at himself, he wasn’t so sure. After all, why would anyone adopt him when they could take home Lady, the adorable gold-colored corgi, or the litter of five-month-old German shepherds—Huey, Dewey, and Louie—who were so tiny when they first got to the rescue that they had to be fed with a baby bottle? People usually wanted the puppies—or at least cute dogs who didn’t need surgery just to straighten their snout.
But Elmer tried not to let that get him down. He knew he was lucky to be with Danny and Ron. After all, not many horse trainers would turn their own home into a dog rescue, but years ago, that’s just what they did. When they weren’t teaching riders how to lead horses through a series of jumps during competitions, they started helping dogs who needed them. At first they saved just a few pups who had lost their homes in a hurricane and were all alone in the world. Danny and Ron set aside space for the dogs in their horse stables, then nursed them back to health, and found them loving families. But soon the numbers grew and grew, and the horse stables weren’t enough. So their dining room table became rows of crates. Instead of stacking logs in their fireplace, they filled it with dog beds, and stocked their pantry with kibble. Eventually, their house had more dogs than people. They often said that they were only guests now in the dogs’ house.
Elmer loved life at the rescue. There were always lots of pups—and sometimes cats—to play with, nobody minded if he jumped up on the sofa in the living room, and when it rained outside and he got scared, Danny would sit beside him and stroke his long soft ears until he fell asleep. Like most of the animals in the house, Elmer remembered what it was like to live in a place where he wasn’t safe. Here, Elmer knew he would be taken care of, no matter what. Still, that didn’t change the fact that his dearest wish in the world was for some nice people to take him home and make him part of their family.
He lay on his back, cushioned by the soft grass, imagining what that would be like. As he looked up at the fluffy white clouds drifting across the sky, Elmer heard the rumble of a car approaching the house. He rolled onto his belly and watched the apple-red sedan wind down the path and come to a stop near the fenced-in yard. Soon Ron came out into the sun, lifting his hand in greeting, a wide grin on his face. “You must be the Cruz family,” he said.
The man behind the wheel opened his car door and stepped out, nodding his head. As tall as Ron, he had tan skin and a trimmed beard that covered his cheeks and chin, but didn’t hide his bright smile.
“We are,” the man answered, shaking Ron’s hand. “I’m Reggie, and this is my wife, Sergeant Cruz.” He gestured toward a woman in a green-and-tan army uniform coming around the front of the car. Her jet-black hair was pulled into a tight bun, and she had warm hazel eyes and deep dimples when she smiled.
“You can call me Marisol,” she said. “And this is our son, Benicio….” She looked behind her to find no one there. She sighed. “Benny, come on out and say hello.”
That’s when Elmer noticed the young boy sitting in the back seat of the car with his nose pressed up against the window. His dark, wavy hair stuck out in all different directions, and behind his glasses his wide eyes were almost the same brown as Elmer’s paws. He was nervously biting the corner of his lip as he finally pushed open his door and climbed out of the car. “Hi,” he mumbled quietly, and waved before shoving his hands back into his pockets.
“Hello there,” Ron said. Then he turned to Marisol and whispered, “He isn’t scared of dogs, is he?”
Marisol shook her head. “No, he’s actually really excited to be here. He’s just a little shy with new people. It’s one of the reasons we want to adopt a dog. Reggie and I are used to moving every few years, whenever the military reassigns me. But I’m afraid it’s been kind of tough on Benny.”
“We thought maybe if he had someone to keep him company, that might help,” Reggie added. “And nothing makes it easier to meet new friends than a cute puppy, am I right?”
“I can’t argue with you there,” Ron answered. “Why don’t you come inside so you can fill out some paperwork. And Benny?” he said, looking down at the boy, who had nestled against his mom’s hip. “If you want, you can stay here and watch the dogs play. It might help you decide what kind you’d like. Just stay outside the gate, all right?”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” said Laura, one of the staff members, as she tossed a few more toys into the yard.
After Benny glanced at his mom and dad to make sure it was okay, he grinned and ran right up to the enclosure, peering through the fence.
Elmer couldn’t explain why—maybe it was the excited look on the boy’s face, or the fact that Benny seemed to need someone just as much as he did—but Elmer wanted this family to adopt him even more than he wanted a chew toy filled with peanut butter. And that was saying a lot!
Elmer trotted over and lifted his front paws onto the fence, letting out a series of yips that meant Hi! I’m Elmer. Want to play?
Benny did look down at him, and even stuck his fingers through the fence to boop the tip of his nose. But it wasn’t long before his eyes wandered to the side of Elmer’s face where his taffy pink tongue poked through. Elmer’s wounds had healed, but he knew some people thought he wasn’t as cute as the other dogs, and he wasn’t as young as the puppies. In human years, he was only ten years old, but in dog years, he was seventy, a senior. So, it came as no surprise that Benny’s eyes lit up when Huey, Dewey, and Louie came barreling toward the gate. The boy didn’t even notice when Elmer offered him his paw to shake or when he bounced around in a circle, letting his ears flap like bird wings. He wants a cute little puppy, Elmer thought. His tail drooped.
Just then, the door of the house opened, and Ron led Reggie and Marisol outside.
“Well, Benny?” Marisol said as she joined her son by the gate. “See any dogs you like?”
Benny nodded and pointed at the German shepherd pups.
“Good choice,” Ron said. “German shepherds are great with kids. These are already spoken for, but we do have a new litter that just arrived a few weeks ago. They still need to pass a few medical checks, but I can add you to the adoption waitlist.”
“Thanks,” said Reggie, resting his hand on Benny’s shoulder. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
With that, the family climbed back into the red car and drove away.
Elmer watched as the Cruz family sped down the road, and Benny turned in his seat to stare out the rear window and smile. For just a moment, Elmer let himself believe that Benny was smiling at him.