The puppy wiggled her way through the door. Barely ajar, it opened onto a busy road. I ran out, vaulting over the closed gate in the iron work thigh high fence. Where was her owner. Or better yet, her mother? A stray? Or was she conjured from my imagination as an answer to my prayer?
My daughter was upstairs. Inconsolable, her eyes blurred with tears. Our ancient border collie passed over the rainbow bridge over a month ago. Each time she walked in the back door from our miniscule backyard, where Moll's water and food dish stood on a slightly raised platform, her faced scrunched up and she raced up to her room in the attic of our brownstone townhouse.
Perhaps the fuzzy ball of deep, almost burgundy red fur would soothe her wounded heart. But what if the pup was lost? What if the rightful owner turned up banging on our door?
I didn't want those unbidden thoughts. There were new people next door. Another blow to my daughter. Jim and Janice had rented their place to a younger couple. Her surrogate grandparents were gone. They moved into a retirement villa an hour's bus ride away from us, promising to come back to visit often. But it wasn't the same.
No more slipping around the short wall with the ivy trellis to knock on their door. No more hot chocolate and shortbread. Or even a gooey chocolate chip cookie with a glass of cold milk. I wasn't much better. No more safe babysitter, and no more solid advice from what to do about her fever when she was sick to how to make a birthday special when property taxes and utilities were all I could afford from my measly salary. Two jobs, school, and a toddler had me crying at night, missing my wife and trying to fulfill my promises to her as she lay dying.
Andy's mother passed while I was still in school. My grandmother, barely remembered, left me the townhouse. A blessing, and I'm almost done thanks to her. The struggle has been worth it. I'm through the worst of my schooling now, and heading toward an easier schedule with regular office hours. I'll work while she's in school. Andrea Elaine Axworthy, the love of my life from the moment her mother laid her in my arms for the first time. And now she's a crying mess. At nine, her losses are already too much to bear.
I scooped up the tiny puppy. How had she even been able to get up the stairs? No, someone must have left her there. I hope deliberately or I would break Andy's heart once more, and I don't know if she could take it. The wriggling mass of fur in my hands stilled as we climbed the stairs. As if this tiny canine knew something momentous was about to occur, I felt her tensing, gathering herself. Damn it don't jump, at least not until we're inside Andy's bedroom.
Her muffled voice told me she had her face buried in her pillow again. I pushed the door open and the pup cradled in my other arm made her move. Sailing of my arms leaving tiny scratches behind, she landed with a bounce right beside Andy. Her red fur blending instantly with the fall of long deep auburn locks tangled on the pillow. My daughter turned her head looking for the source the high pitched whine beside her ear. Round eyes registered wonder, and she sat up to grab puppy.
I tried to back out. I wanted the two to bond, but I still had to figure out where this tiny Irish setter came from. There was no doubt as to the breed. Only one had the distinctive red fur this one did.
"Dad, is it mine?"
"If I can figure out where it came from and it isn't someone else's lost pet." I had to be truthful.
"Girl or boy?" Andy asked.
"She's Belle. Like from Beauty and the Beast. She's going to be my best friend."
"Remember, only if she doesn't belong to anyone we can find. I'm putting an add in the lost pet group on Facebook right away." I heard someone banging on our back door. "That might be someone looking for her now."
Andy gathered her puppy in her arms. What was I going to do if that was Belle's owner?
Hurrying back down two flights of stairs, I rushed through the kitchen to answer the thudding knock on our door. Whoever it was, they sounded like an impatient cop.
"Have you seen a puppy?"
Here it comes, I'm going to have to break Andy's heart again.
"She's the last one from Maggie's litter. I haven't found a home for her yet." The exasperated tone told me this wasn't the first time the little mutt had escaped. The man wore a firefighter's uniform.
"She found us. Came in through open front door."
"So that's where she went. We live next door. I had our door propped open for five minutes. Just wanted to let the smoke out from burnt toast."
"Andy, come on down here," I called. Might as well get it over with. She was going to have to give the puppy back.
"I'm Mike, by the way. Jim and Janice are our landlords. My Dad worked with him. It's a long story." He was looking over my shoulder as he talked. I could see wheels turning in his head. What was this burly tattooed blond giant thinking? He glanced down, noticing the dishes right beside his black booted feet. "Do you have a dog?"
"Those are Moll's. We lost her a few weeks ago."
"I didn't think I've seen a dog around here." He lowered his voice. "Do you want another one?"
His question didn't get by Andy's sharp ears.
"Oh please! Please Daddy." She put the puppy down and the red ball of fluff scrambled across the linoleum toward Mike. "Her name is Belle."
"She looks like a pure bred Irish Setter. I don't think I can afford to pay for her."
"But Dad, I'll do it. I've got some money saved," Andy declared.
She did. Not much, we'd put the eighty five dollars she made doing little chores for Jim and Janice in the bank the other day.
Mike's eyes twinkled. "Then we need to talk. How much do you have in the bank."
Was he serious? Was he going to bargain with a nine-year-old girl?
I listened as he did exactly that. Her life's savings for Belle. And then Mike turned after he shook her hand.
"But I can't take all of your money. You need some for a collar and leash. And maybe a dog bed."
"I can earn more. I can fold your laundry or do your dishes or anything else you can think of," Andy was determined and I nodded my head.
"She used to do a lot of little things for Janice around the house. She does her chores here too. She's a great kid." I said.
"Well Andy, do you think Moll would mind if you gave her things to Belle?" Mike asked.
For the first time in weeks, a smile bloomed across Andy's face. "Of course not, she's in heaven now."
"Then you can earn the rest on Saturday. And you can meet Belle's mom. Maggie needs someone to play with."
"I'll pick up her poop and Belle's too. I used to do it for Moll before she got so sick." Andy volunteered.
"That's an extra money chore. There aren't many people who would pick up that up. I used to think it was punishment." Mike said.
Andy shrugged. "I think I should start a business. Lots of people on our street have dogs."
I knew she mentioned it before Moll went downhill so quickly. Andy was coming back. I had no idea how old this puppy was. My feisty daughter wasn't going to let her go easily even if she had to.
"Can Belle stay with us. I'm not sure she's old enough." I asked Mike.
"She can. She's just been weaned. If you don't have puppy food right now, we'll lend you some. It's getting too late to buy supplies tonight."
"Thank you, Mr. Mike." Andy's grin brought an answering smile from the fireman.
"Come on over. I think this is the beginning of something wonderful." Mike lead the way, and we followed around the trellis.
Maybe, just maybe, my faith was coming back. Maybe there was a God. The answers to prayers come in strange ways. Thank you for making my girl smile again. And thank you for the unexpected gift of friendship blooming in our backyard. Santa Claus lived on our street, working as a fireman in the middle of March.