This story contains material that is distressing: physical abuse.
Before I can do anything, he’s upon me. Big hands clamp onto my neck, easily circling it. The man’s grip is unrelenting; I can’t turn my head to bite those fleshy fingers let alone duck and dodge. He flips me onto my side, knocking the breath out of me. Kneeling in the dirt, he swiftly slips a frayed rope out of his overall’s orange pocket, and round my throat. He tightens the noose and I’m trapped.
My legs can’t hold me. He forces me up, but each time I buckle. I want to cry out for the others, but they have slipped into the shadows and no one wants to come and brave this man to free me. He kicks me, as if his metal capped boot will make me move, but it just winds me all the more. Angrily, he drags me off the street and pins me under his arm; my useless legs dangle like sticks beneath me. Day- old sweat and strong fumes of liquor overpower me; I turn my head to escape the reek, face rubbing against the old unwashed cloth of his overalls. Pressed against him, my stomach lurches with each of his determined strides.
The man unlocks the van and throws me in like I was rubbish for the dump. I hit the hard metal floor, no blanket to cushion my fall. The boot door slams, plunging me into a strange darkness: no friendly light dancing from camp fires or even the reassuring beam from the city’s street lights. Another door opens, followed immediately by slamming and the sound I’ve heard before- from afar-now vibrating all about me: the shuddering roar of an engine starting to life.
I cry for my mum. She warned me to keep away from the men in their overalls; she made me promise to always play with the others. I thought the vans would never come for me. Now I know I’m wrong, curled up alone, the car’s shudders matching my own.
“Pete, I’m worried about Benny.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“He didn’t want to go out of the house today”
“Well, one step at a time.”
But I’m not talking about going far, like into town; he wouldn’t even go into the garden.”
“She said he’s probably been through a lot. Remember it’s all new to him, poor little clap.”
“He was shaking on the doorstep. Actually shaking. I had to carry him out and when I got him down the steps; he just flopped down in the grass. No playing, not even with his favourite toys.”
“I know it’s tough, but let’s just give it time. That’s what Sue told us after all: time’s the biggest healer and that’s something we can give Benny.”
“I just want him to see this place as his home. I know he might not want to be here. It’s not like he chose any of this, but we chose him. That must count for something?”
“I don’t know Laura. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
My mind must have shut down because I wake with a start to the engine dying and the driver’s door opening. I’ve only seconds to think what to do. Should I cower in the back and hope, against all odds, that he’ll just forget about me? Even as I think it, I know it’s stupid: he caught me, why on earth would he forget about me now? So, I need to be ready to make a run for it when he opens the boot. As soon as I hear the click, smell his sweat, I need to be off: quicker than those grabbing hands; faster than the flick of the rope. I get ready but he is an old-hand at this; the boot door is flung up and I’m blinded by the strong beam of a flashlight. He rams the beam right into my eyes and I’m forced to cower, lights flashing like lightning strikes in my head. He grunts, satisfied with my response and then those grabbing hands are on me again.
I can’t see properly. It’s like there’s a flare in my head and everything I see comes in bursts: a concrete yard, a rundown building, a metal grille over a cavity and an underground room.
Noises come up from there. Whimpers. Moans. I don’t know what this place is, but every little bit of me knows that I don’t want to go down there. I struggle hard but I’m so much smaller than him; he just throws me on to the ground, putting his heavy boot on top of me. Both hands free, he struggles to lift the heavy grating and even from the floor the stench of his sweat hits me. The next blow is worse, for a sweet second the boot is off me but then it is under my ribs and I’m falling down, hitting another hard floor and then I know no more.
“Pete? Pete, you in?”
“Hi love, yeah- just through here.”
“Right oh- with you in two ticks. Just got to offload the groceries. Sorry I’m back late by the way; it’s so sunny I thought I’d walk. How’s Benny been? Could you get out?”
“He’s just been asleep most of the day, if I’m honest Laura.”
“Probably just what he needs. If he sleeps then he’s resting and that must be a good sign: he’s relaxed enough to trust us.”
“I suppose. But love, have you seen him sleeping? His eyes roll, like I can see the whites. And he twitches.”
“Well you should see yourself asleep in bed. Twitching is just the start! Before the tugging begins and then the duvet stealing...”
“Ok ok. I know: I hog the duvet. But this isn’t like that. His whole-body spasms and he whimpers like…God, I don’t want to think like what is after him.”
“We can’t protect him from nightmares…”
“I know. I just hope we can make his days more the stuff dreams are made of.”
In the pitch-black confines of the small room, I huddle up with the others for the small comfort the press of another warm body can bring. The man in overalls doesn’t come again and we can begin to confide in each other. We all have the same sad stories: stolen from our loved ones, taken when we were happily unawares. I tell the others of my brothers and sisters. How we played together as the sun set, scampering in the long shadows. How we hadn’t heard the van pull up or the boots scrunch on the gravel until it was too late. Well, too late for me. My story is repeated by the others: again, and again and again.
Drink is tepid water sloshed in a bowl, which we all lap at desperately. It’s soon all gone. Some lick the floor in case a few drops might be in the dirt.
Food? There is no food. The only things filling our stomachs are groans.
I don’t know how much later it is. For a time, we are outside of time: forgotten by the sun which doesn’t shine on us. Then a door opens and the brilliant daylight floods in before men in overalls block it, casting their shadows upon us. The darkness solidifies and gloved hands are wrenching us up. Bruises bruise and pain quickens. Fear is a smell: the hot reek of the gasoline in the running motors. We are thrown in, one after the other. The men call to each other, brisk and efficient refuse collectors, like they’re just doing their job: taking out the garbage.
I’ve always relied on my legs to take me everywhere: walking, running- loving the feel of the earth beneath my feet. I strayed here and there and it was all home because my family was there too: the long grass, the tangled weeds; the long sidewalks leading off to new adventures. Now I don’t know where the ground is; it’s left me.
I lie down on the cold metal of the van floor and wish for the still, solid earth. If sleep could come, there would be some escape for a while, but the van has swallowed me whole and now it shakes and shakes with me in its guts. The vibrations rattle every bone in my body; my stomach spins in time with the speeding wheels. Neither will stop and the spasms grip me, clenching me: squeeze, release, squeeze, release until I’m sick all over the floor.
“Laura? Hey! Where are you?”
“Up here Pete: bathroom.”
“Jeez! What’s that all down you? That’s not the lunch I left you, is it? Surely my cooking’s not that bad!”
“I’ve not had time to eat a thing. You know that parcel I missed last week when we were out getting Benny?”
“Yeah- they left a card.”
“Well I thought I’d nip to the post and get it. Benny looked so sad I decided to take him with me in the car. I figured that was better than leaving him home alone.”
“Ok. But why is lunch all down your jeans?”
“It’s not lunch Pete! So, I sat him next to me -up front -as he refused to get in the back. He just dug his feet in; you’d have thought I was trying to shove him into a burning pit or something. Anyway, I put him onto the passenger seat. He was shaking like anything and then he started retching; before I could do a thing- puke everywhere.”
“Look Laura, I hate to say it but just sponging is not going to cut it. The smell is sick- like literally of sick. You get changed. I’ll go and check in on Benny.”
“Looks like I’ll be cleaning the car this weekend. Hey ho- I suppose the spring clean is overdue!”
When the boot finally opens again I shut my eyes, waiting for the glare of the torch, but it doesn’t come. Instead there is a little woman peering in at all the small cowering bodies. She says something in a language I don’t understand. She doesn’t wear any overalls; there is no rope in her hand. These must be two good things. Still, I don’t know what to do. I can hear from the coaxing sounds she’s making that she wants me to get out, but what if there is something I can’t see? Something she is hiding behind her back, down a pocket? There are stones all around, big heavy looking stones that are just a hand’s reach away. Perhaps the man in overalls will suddenly come back.
It is only when the others, more confident than me, allow themselves to be lifted down that I shuffle forward. The drop is too high for my small legs to manage, so she reaches to carry me and I flinch; but she croons some more, and I submit to her touch. It is kind and gentle; it reminds me of the rise and fall of my mum’s soft belly when I lay next to her, drifting off to sleep, a lifetime ago.
We are locked up again but there are blankets on the concrete floor, a window in the bricked wall, and plenty of food and drink brought by the same old lady. I learn her name is Sue and she comes and sits with us every day. At first, she just sits on an old cushion which smells of her- of soap- and reads a book. We come up, one at a time, some on the first day, some on the second; me- a week later- and sniff her tentatively. She just turns her pages, slowly, steadily, taking her time.
I remember when Pete and Laura came to see me for the first time; her long hair smelled of flowers and his clothes of cut grass. They walked in bringing the fields I loved with them. When they stroked me, I felt like the wind was in my fur once more.
Sue spoke to them for a long time. I heard catches in the language I was getting used to, but still didn’t understand.
“It will be very hard. You know that don’t you? He’s never been in a house.”
“We know. We’re ready.”
“We want to give Benny a fresh start.”
And they take me to a house, with no concrete floors and wide windows everywhere; where the light spills in, like it wants to be inside. I lie myself down and let the warmth wash over me.
I want a new start too, but my fears are always just behind me, snapping at my tail. They leap out at me: the sudden noise the little child makes running to the park; the gardener in his overalls, tidying up the leaves; the gratings in the sidewalks where I’ve learnt some people live, in softly- lit apartments. And when the fears come, and they always come, I have to lie down or I lunge up: all jaws and bared teeth; ready to scare off what is coming for me, coming for my beloved Laura or Pete.
Slowly I’m learning that not all men wear overalls or carry ropes; not all cars want to drive me far away from my family. Yesterday Sue came to visit; she stood on the doorstep and I wagged my tail. I rolled over, letting her stroke my tummy and it felt almost like my brothers and sisters; her fingers their soft snuffling noses.
This is not the life I chose but I choose to belong here, a little more every day. And sometimes, even the fears close their eyes and sleep. I curl up on the sofa, an unlikely sanctuary for a stray, stretched out between Laura and Pete; he gets my bottom, she my head. They both seem happy with the deal as they watch something on the telly, crunching crisps or slurping tea. And as they do, they stroke me, with infinite patient love. In these moments, slipping between wakefulness and sleep, I know I’ve lost a lot, but I’ve found a home.