Beams of blinding light flood through my open window, as birds chirp noisily in the distance. The neighbor’s dog yaps relentlessly. I hate that little yapper’s pathetic bark almost as much I loathe touching the subway rail. Don’t get me wrong, I like dogs, but this one is the devil in disguise.
Shuddering, I hastily slide my window shut, as a noise much more ferocious thunders from downstairs, vibrating the floorboards.
“Jillian Summers! You better get your pretty behind down here before I drag it out of bed,” Mom bellows, startling me from my slight irritation.
Shoot! I had nearly forgotten today’s significance. “My behind is on its way,” I inform Mom as I leap out of bed and awkwardly scramble to the bathroom, tripping over my own feet.
Thank goodness the door is ajar (that handle is nasty). My slim figure easily slips through and I head straight for the sink, flip the faucet, and coat my hands with flower-scented hand soap. No harm in being clean, right? 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10. I scrub my palms and each fingernail meticulously, until certain they’re spotless. Next, I slip into the cleanest tank (white) and jeans I spot and naturally, my green lace choker.
Now that the morning haze is fading, I begin to think clearly. The butterflies flutter in my stomach and the what-ifs surface, causing my anxiety to spike for the first time this morning.
What if Puppy Paradise is closed? Or even worse, what if it’s open and I find enough clues? Then what’s my next move? Dilemmas, Dilemmas. What if… No, Jillian, stop!
Before the uneasiness assumes control of my decisions, I fly down the creaking wooden stairs, two at a time, careful not to brush against the banister. When I reach the kitchen, Mom is leaning against the marble island countertop in her skintight shirt and long, plaid sweats. She plucks a blueberry from the container and thrusts it into her mouth. I avert my eyes, unable to fathom consuming unwashed blueberries straight from the container.
Mom finally notices my entrance and allows some blueberry gunk to trickle from her mouth as she gurgles, “No time for breakfast, get your bag and hop into the car. Oh! Don’t forget a water bottle. Today is gonna be scorching!”
“Yeah, I know. Um…Mom? Can I walk to school like usual?” I ask, casually tossing my hair and slipping the straps of my green knapsack onto my shoulders.
“I don’t see why not, but you’ll be late to your last day of eighth grade. Why do you want to walk so badly?”
“Well, after this, I’m never going to see the view of the bay or town in the same way and I guess I wanna say goodbye,” I grope for a convincing lie, though inside my brain is in turmoil. I’m petrified of the car. I am fearful that something will startle Mom, she’ll crash the car into a tree, the police will uncover our unidentifiable corpses underneath the disfigured and melting metal. Then our bodies will be poked and prodded in the morgue until we are cremated and forgotten to the world. Of course, I dare not utter this hidden nightmare to Mom for fear of being labeled insane.
Quickly, I unbolt the front door, using one knapsack strap to undo the lock and the other to turn the knob. The smell of humid, fresh air greets my nostrils as my eyes glimpse the stunning sunlight. It cheers up my apprehensive mood and I begin to jog down the street and through town, all the while gazing at the unconfined and free Long Island Sound. I envy the bay’s audacity and fearlessness as well as its power.
By the time I reach Bay Shore Middle School, my watch reads ten after eight. Rushing to my locker in a race against time, I find Mackenzie, Kayla, and Jeannette crowding together at our locker space.
Mackenzie’s friendly banter echoes through the tiled halls, “Hey, Jillian. We were just planning our first night of vacation!” She squeals. “We’re going to town tonight, partying, maybe seeing a movie or something, as a good omen for a fun summer! You in?”
“Actually, I was planning on hitting the sack as an omen for a lazy summer,” I put on a fake smile. They can’t know what I am doing tonight.
Mackenzie rolls her eyes and laughs. “Typical you. Hey, can you hold my books while I open my locker?”
“ Uhh. No thanks, do you know how germy your books are?” I play it casual, but inside my stomach is turning squeamish at the thought.
“Fine.” Grinning, Mackenzie prepares to whack me with her science textbook, but I dodge and run… right into Ayden. Even through all my apologizing, I can’t help but think how hot he is. Ayden is totally the cutest guy in the grade, with his stunning blue eyes and messy hair that always seem to hide them. Ayden sees me blushing, but I escape his gaze by bolting in the direction of the girl’s bathroom, my only safe refuge.
As I’m running, I hear Ayden call out, “Jillian, you ok?”
I am astonished that he even knows my name.
Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick. Brring. Brring. Finally, the last bell of the day blasts through the school. My knapsack hangs on the back of the desk (I couldn’t fatham dropping it on the filthy floor) and I scoop it up, while unassumingly edging towards the classroom door. Once I’m through the doorway, I sigh in relief for having ducked out before the farewell hugs and kisses begin.
I stride out of school swiftly and with purpose, but not before washing my hands and offering a final farewell to the girl’s bathroom for having been my safe haven these past few years. My destination is Puppy Paradise, located on Bayview, the center of town. The scenery along the walk doesn’t seem to register in my brain, probably because I’m too nervous. Before long, my feet stop before the pet shop with its cute Labrador puppies on display in the front window. One, two, three. I breathe in deeply, summoning all my courage and lean my weight against the door. It gives way as the bells above jingle, putting me more on edge than I already am.
“Hi. Is there anything I can help you with?” A college boy with jet-black hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and an overall shadowy aura approaches me as I enter. My heart rate slows as I realize he doesn’t automatically suspect me. I bury the fear and nervousness deep inside and launch into my hopefully believable customer performance.
I gaze around the “T” shaped storefront, playing curious buyer analyzing the stock piled shelves and oohing at the lovable puppies. In truth, I’m really seizing the opportunity to search for tangible evidence. I note a dark room in the back from which puppy whines escape; it could be where the store keeps their ill and dying puppies.
“Oh! Well, my mother is interested in purchasing a puppy,” I squeal impersonating an excited daughter, but feeling nothing of the sort. “ She was just looking for information on your breeder.”
“I can assist in finding the right dog for you, but I’m not at liberty to tell customers where our puppies come from.” College boy’s smile is plastic and insincere. He probably acquired this job, just for the sake of making a few quick bucks.
“Oh. Are those puppies in the back for sale?” I continue to play sweet and innocent, but I can tell I’ve hit a nerve. I conceal my smile that’s struggling to make an appearance. Bingo.
“No,” he replies, stiffening. His artificial hospitality is replaced by suspicion and the boy clenches his fists. This guy isn’t enlightening me with any useful information, just confirming what I already know. Puppy Paradise purchases cheap purebreds from a puppy mill.
I am about to investigate further, but the sound of jingling bells catches my attention. Ayden waltzes in and exclaims, “H-e-e-e-y, Adam, how’s it going. My sister here giving you any problems?” He delivers a wink in my direction and continues, “Cause if she is, I can get rid of her.” He laughs in a carefree manner, but his bright –and may I mention gorgeous- blue eyes flash College boy a warning not to cause me any problems. I am completely and utterly confused.
“Nah, I was just gonna call my boss to help her,” College boy’s stiffness doesn’t disappear completely, but I can tell he’s less wary of me than before. Making his way to the front desk, College boy produces a cord phone and begins to dial what I assume is his boss’s number. Brilliant, now the manager will call the police on me! The jig is up.
College boy stares unblinkingly at his shoes and I shoot Ayden a disapproving and simultaneously puzzled glare. What was he playing at?
I attempt to diffuse the situation further by leaning my arm casually against the desk, hoping my blasé façade implies innocence. My skin begins to crawl when I touch the desk that who knows how many others have as well. My heart seizes and suddenly, the room shrinks. Instinctively, I jerk my arm away and take advantage of the Purell stowed away in my bag for emergencies.
“Uh, you know what, I have to go. Thanks Adam.” I mumble, no longer concentrating as I rush out of Puppy Palace. I’m certain Ayden follows me out when the door reopens. I whirl towards him, exasperated.
“What were you doing?” I demand.
“What does it look like? I was being a good big brother.” Ayden chuckles at his own joke and slips his hands in his shorts pockets.
“Seriously! You ruined something really important,” I complain, surprised my usual shyness towards Ayden has yet to materialize.
“I was rescuing a damsel in distress,” he defends himself with a charming smirk on his face.
“Pretending I was your sister didn’t help anything. You don’t even know what I’m doing here and I certainly didn’t need your help. Just go!” I refuse to admit to my earlier need for assistance.
Suddenly, a bleached-white delivery truck pulls into the Puppy Palace lot, but that’s not what disrupts my ranting. What does is, the whimpering of helpless pups. I barely hear Ayden exclaim that I looked needy for assistance, but instead move stealthily towards the truck. I crouch behind a nearby car, scrutinizing the driver unloading his barking merchandise and contemplating my next move. By far, this is the best clue I’ve discovered; a direct route to the puppy mill itself. It’s my free ticket to solving this mystery. Deciding not to waste this fleeting opportunity, I hop inside the truck’s open back, while its driver unloads his delivery.
The truck’s interior is stuffy with the stench of animal feces in sweaty quarters. With no visible window, the truck darkens when I gingerly close the door. Partially shut, through the small opening, I observe a shadow grasping the truck bottom and hoisting itself upwards.
Though I freeze and hold my breath, the figure notices me instantly. If not for those familiar blue eyes, I would have attacked that sneaky and reckless silhouette. Ayden brings a finger to his lips, silencing my yet unuttered words before they emerge, and points towards the door. Gathering his message that the delivery was just about finished temporarily precludes my wrath at his following me, but I stow it away for a more appropriate time.
Together, Ayden and I conceal ourselves in a corner and remain unmoving, as the driver, oblivious to his trespassers latches the back door, turns the ignition on, and takes off without a second thought. This guy is thick!
After several failed attempts to lip speak, it becomes apparent that Ayden and I require some other form of silent communication. A sigh of defeat from Ayden’s direction is the only decipherable message in this silent gloom.
Despite the lack of light, I notice his eyes widen; he had better have a solution. Ayden fumbles, ruffling through who knows what in his pockets and extracts a tattered receipt. Finding the only light in the truck door’s crack, I lean towards the ray and inspect the receipt, not understanding Ayden’s intentions. I guess Ayden realizes my uncertainty, so he sets a pen - I wonder what else is in those pockets of his, on second thought, no I don’t- in my palm. It all clicks and I flip the receipt to its back and begin to scrawl over the fading print, Janette’s Bakery.
Why won’t you just leave me alone?
Ayden scribbles back, I’m like a bad zit, once you get me, I’m hard 2 get rid of. Great he even has a sense of humor in writing. No room on papr or time 4 jokes. What’s the deal? Now his earnestness presents itself.
Truck on way 2 Puppy Mill. Been staking out Puppy Palace. Ayden should be shocked or surprised, but somehow he isn’t.
Any other clues?
No. I’m slightly embarrassed my suspicions lead to such a reckless act of hitching a ride on the truck.
Guess we’ll wait & see what happens. Was he crazy?
WE NEED A PLAN or else we get in trouble! I write, longing to scream at Ayden for his carelessness, not to mention my own.
I say we just roll with it. I say he wants us dead.
The truck stops abruptly, screeching to a halt and sending me flying into Ayden. As I rise my eyes meet Ayden’s. Our proximity lessens and our lips are barely an inch apart. My heart racing, swells with the sudden urge to kiss him, but Ayden breaks the moment by turning away.
Ayden chances a whisper. “After this happens, we go back to normal, ok? Like we were before, nothing between us, just two kids going to the same school. Don’t even know each other’s name.”
Ouch. That hurt. We had something just then, but Ayden blew it off.
A noise distracts me from the hurt. “Alright boss, just delivered the puppies. What should I do now?” The driver’s gruff voice journeys from outside.
“Go inside and check’em. The other ones, I mean,” an authoritative figure commands.
“ Yes, Sir.” Shoes crunch against what must be gravel, a chain fence clinks and creaks. A few minutes of silence and then a call notifies the boss, “I’m gonna need another bag. On second thought, two.”
As a second pair of shoes crunches off; I realize this is my chance. I gingerly push against the truck door and it glides silently open. My need for Purell has never been so dire, but there’s no time.
After checking for the camera in my back jean pocket and confirming its presence, I leap from the truck, risking the sound and wince, fearing its volume is amplified along with the drumming of my heart.
A soft thud and Ayden stands beside me.
“What’s your big plan now, Einstein?”
I remain silent, as side-by-side we squint past a rusted chain link fence crowned with barbed wire, at a rotting, aged barn from which the sound of whimpers and yelps emerge.
Walking on my toes to muffle the footsteps, I wearily approach the gate. A lump gathers in my throat as I reach to unhinge the latch; the gate is padlocked.
“We need to get in there,” I say matter-of-factly, partially answering Ayden’s previous question. “But it’s locked.”
“I say we just scale the fence.”
I scoff at his joke, but by the deadpan expression he repays me with, I realize he’s dead serious.
“Are you insane?!” I hiss at him. “That barbed wire is meant to keep us out and it doing a pretty good job. If we get cut, we could get tetanus; we could die.” My greatest terror.
“You got a better idea? Oh, how about we wait and ask them to open the gate for us,” he replies sarcastically.
As forcefully as I try to deny it in my mind, I know Ayden is right. When I volunteered for this assignment, I should’ve anticipated the hazards and fears requiring my conquering. Heroes are known for sacrifice, so what price was I willing to pay for gaining the freedom of these puppies?
“Fine,” I reply sharply, “we climb the fence.”
With my compliance, Ayden crosses the distance between him and the fence, grips the wire, and begins a steady climb. His jacket now covering one small angle of the barbed wire.
I suck in a breath, hoping his jacket will protect our hands from damage. With no time to consider, I tear some fabric from my cheap tank top and wrap it around my palms. Then, I too begin to climb.
Ayden survives the ascent and, before long, a thump informs me he reaches the ground. I, on the other hand, have no such luck. Blood seeps through the cloth covering hands, as the jutting metal punctures my skin. My arms and legs quiver, feeling jellylike.
“Ayden, I can’t do this,” I whimper, terrified.
“Yes, you can. It’s just a fence. Besides, if you fall, I’ll catch you in my outstretched arms or at least the ground will,” he teases. The normality of his joking rids me of my panic and urges me to resume my trek.
After what seems like hours, I arrive at the bottom. I inspect my mangled hands as well as Ayden’s, but clearly there are no accessible disinfectants. Instead, I expend my limited supply of Purell on our gashes.
“Ouch. What the hell!” Ayden grimaces at the Purell’s sting.
“Sorry, but these wounds won’t do us any good if they get infected,” I assure Ayden and frown sympathetically.
“Well, come on, we better get going before the grass grows.”
Ayden scowls and jogs dauntlessly into the looming warehouse. I scowl too as I follow him wearily, like an owner trailing after its disobedient puppy.
The instant I enter the rotting structure, I double over, clenching my chest, unable to breathe, and reaching to shield my mouth from the foul stenches permeating the barn. I pinch my nose with my thumb and index finger and once recovered, glance ahead at Ayden. He’s oddly unfazed by the awful reek of decay and feces. Go figure.
The nauseating sight before me unfolds. Columns of metal crates heaped upon one another to the ceiling, hopeless dogs lying in stingy cages, paws slashed from the jagged metal bars. Gagging, I nearly bolt from the barn then, screeching like a bat out of hell, but somehow I keep my cool.
I attempt to soothe myself. Relax. No touching anything. Nothing will harm you. You just need to take some pictures as proof.
Groping for the camera in my back pocket, I realize it’s missing. Must have fallen during the climb. So… not… good.
A sudden movement from the corner of my eye startles me. Ayden is swinging my camera strap to and fro. He smirks and then snickers “Looking for this?”
Confused, I outstretch my hand and reply, “Yeah, Ayden, give it back. This isn’t funny. I need that.”
“Not any more.” I start at the appearance of two other teenage boys.
With that, Ayden drops my camera and crushes it with his foot. Panic wells within me and the hair at the nape of my neck stands up. Something is wrong.
“What’s going on?” My eyes widen with fear and my body threatens to tremble, but I make an attempt to be bold.
“You did’n think stakin out our store for the past couple of weeks went unnoticed, did ya?” The commanding one asks rhetorically and laughs. “Yes, we’ve had our eyes on you for the past few weeks. Had our suspicions. My lil’ bro here tipped us off when you jumped in the back of our truck.” He claps Ayden on the back, grinning approvingly.
While processing the Commander’s comment, it dawns on me that we weren’t just caught. Ayden was in on it. It all clicks. Ayden’s odd interest in helping me, his momentary delay before following me into the van, his devil-may-care attidude, my missing camera, etc.
Anger rises beneath my chest, momentarily overpowering the panic.
“You betrayed me!” I shriek at Ayden, who stares at his shoes, his blue eyes refusing to meet my glare. Through my protests, tears spring to my eyes. The boy I secretly loved for his honesty and bravery was a fraud and a coward.
“Aww so sweet. You thought he actually cared about you. He played his role quite well.” Commander remarks, slyly. “As much as I’m enjoying this entertainment,” he pauses. “My business requires the end of your snooping around.”
Apparently Commander’s notion of discontinuance is different than mine, because suddenly, he produces a .22 caliber revolver and aims it directly at me!
My stomach lurches, my hands slicken with sweat, I don’t want to die. I seal my eyes shut and clench my fists, anticipating the pain of death and manifestation of my terror filled nightmares, but they don’t come. Somehow, I conquer my panic and realize this mission isn’t just to save the puppies, but also to defeat my constant fear of life by coming face to face with death.
Ayden’s determined voice arouses me from my pondering. “No, this wasn’t part of the plan. You said she wouldn’t get hurt!” His voice is rising and his face is chalk white.
“Plans change. You didn’t think we could just tell her not to rat us out and forget about the whole thing did you?” I know Ayden’s brother envisions my death in his scheme, but I’m about to let him murder me!
Obviously, neither is Ayden, because he puts on a resolute, set face and steps before the gun. “I can’t let you do this.”
I recall once reading an article claiming one who runs in a zigzag is virtually impossible to shoot. Hoping the preoccupied Commander is no sniper, I take that risk appreciating Ayden’s distraction.
My legs race as fast as they can carry me and I vaguely perceive Ayden yelling, “Run, Jillian, run!” As I dart through the aisles, I unlatch cage bars and place the freed puppies on the ground. Better they run free than be imprisoned in these confines, although both options are not ideal.
Gunshots ring in my ears, but the absence of yelps informs me that the random scampering of puppies are no match for the whizzing of undirected bullets. I continue racing, but the barn’s exit eludes me. My legs weaken and stumble.
Before I recuperate from the fall, someone yanks me up by my hair. Although I kick and flail, I am unable to break free. My escape attempt fails once again and the barrel of a gun is pressed beneath my chin. It’s not there for long though, because without warning Ayden appears and punches my captor in the face, while grabbing his gun. The guy groans and Ayden snatches my hand, pulling me away. Together we sprint towards the exit, Ayden supporting my limping self.
Commander isn’t waiting outside for us, so I presume Ayden dealt with his brother in a similar matter.
Once the fresh air hits my face, I halt.
“What are you doing, we have to keep going?” Ayden questions me wildly.
I just stand there and stare wonderingly into his blue eyes, my wrath long forgotten. “You saved my life.”
“I put you in danger in the first place,” his voice is strangled and regretful. “I’m so sorry. You should never forgive me. ”
“Well, I do, because in the end you did the right thing.”
He looks about to protest, remorse contorting his face, but he doesn’t, because I kiss him. My bravery throughout this adventure appears unceasing.
After a wonderful moment, we break away. I smile crookedly. All along, Ayden really liked me. His expression confirms it.
“Come on, let’s go tell the police what we found and save some puppies,” Ayden announces, beaming. I’m not concentrating. Instead, my mind is fixed on that kiss; the one that broke through my jail’s fortified walls.