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Your New Friend

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Before Will had even parked his station wagon, he could see some of the results of the remodel. The cramped gravel parking lot was now a spacious blacktop, and as he pulled in, he noticed a whole new building at the south end of the grounds. The rutted gravel path to the main building was now an asphalt ramp, and Will strode down it to the front door, looking forward to seeing Sylvia and find out about all the new features of the shelter.

The updated reception area was tidier, close to minimalist, which Will found more welcoming than the clutter of handmade signs and mismatched furniture that it had once featured. The space was being used much more effectively; there was even room now for a little glass-fronted cat colony, where a litter of kittens were cuddling, a sight that even he, a dedicated dog person, found endearing. The floor was no longer cold concrete, but epoxy.

Sylvia, however, did not seem to be a feature of the new reception desk. Instead, a well-dressed and distinguished-looking man met Will’s eyes, standing up to further reveal his expensive suit and flawless posture. The man greeted Will cordially, if not warmly.

Will responded, “Hi, um, where’s Sylvia?” As soon as he’d said it, he knew it sounded rude. He had a difficult time controlling his tone, sometimes.

But the man was unruffled. “Sylvia will be back on Tuesday,” he explained. “My name is Hannibal, I’ve taken over certain afternoons at the desk, so that Sylvia can spend more time assisting her husband at home.”

Will stepped up to the desk. “Oh, that’s right, he has that…foot thing. I’m Will, I—oh, uh.” He held out his hand, which Hannibal shook firmly. “I’m kind of a regular here.”

“Are you the Will who takes the sick and elder dogs? My fellow volunteers speak very fondly of you.”

“I do have a soft spot for the ones no one else wants,” Will said, looking at the floor, the ceiling, everywhere but Hannibal’s intense eyes. He was being perfectly friendly, but his gaze was oppressive. “And I have the resources to care for them, so…yeah. In any case, I heard about the remodel, and I figured it was time to come see about adding someone to my pack.”

“Absolutely. Evie?” Hannibal leaned into the office just behind the reception area. “Would you be a darling and watch the front desk while I give Will a tour of the new facilities? Thank you.”

Evie waved at Will as she came in. “Hi, Will! How are Maggie and Lola and Scooter?”

“They’re fine. Lola doesn’t get around so well, but she’s still comfortable, and she still loves that blankie.”

“I’m so glad to hear that!” Eva clasped her hands together and pressed them to her smiling lips. “And you’re going to just love the new place!”

“We’ll just get started, then,” Hannibal said, gently but firmly placing a hand on Will’s back to guide him through to the adoption area.

Will flinched under this stranger’s touch, but he was quickly distracted, astounded by the results of the remodel. No more intimidating 70’s-style concrete and chain link cages. Everything was more spacious, more comfortable, and so much quieter. Hannibal explained that while the shelter had reduced its capacity, the new environment made the animals more adoptable, and put visitors more at ease, and so the increased adoption rate meant that ultimately, the shelter was helping more animals find forever homes.

Examining one of the dogs’ “suites,” as Hannibal called them, Will was struck by the food it had in its bowl. “That doesn’t look like store-bought,” he remarked. “It looks like what I make for my dogs, when I have a little extra time on the weekend.”

“Indeed. The culinary arts are a hobby of mine, and I occasionally provide some home cooking to the animals. All of it compliant with their dietary needs, of course. For the dogs, mostly chicken, but balanced with eggs, carrots, and brown rice. Right through here is the activity yard, if you’d like to see it?”

“Sure.”

In the yard, volunteers were supervising and throwing tennis balls as several dogs rolled and ran about. Will did not intent to adopt any of these healthy, well-adjusted, vigorous dogs, but it made him happy to watch them, as he did not get to see this much lively frolicking at home.

“So you have to tell me,” Will said to Hannibal, his eyes still on the dogs at play. “What exactly is your deal?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s just, you’re a little out of place here, volunteering at an animal shelter in a three-piece suit. I’m used to college kids and little old ladies when I come here. So, what’s in it for you?”

Hannibal clasped his hands in front of himself, swaying slightly as he surveyed the grounds. “If I said simply that contributing to the welfare of animals was its own reward, you wouldn’t believe me.”

“That’s true,” Will remarked, “but you’re right, I wouldn’t believe you.”

“Then perhaps if I told you that it was a client who brought to my attention the unsatisfactory conditions of this facility. It occurred to me, then, that an animal shelter might be just the sort of charity I ought to be involved with. I could finance a renovation with what, to me, would be a modest outlay, and improve many lives.”

“You’re the one who paid for all this? I thought people like you threw money at opera houses and art museums, if they wanted to feel less guilty about never lifting a finger.”

“I am involved with those institutions as well, yes. But as you say, charity is partly about feeling less guilty, and that’s something that this organization can do, for me, more than a museum. Renovating this shelter fulfills one sort of desire to pay one’s wealth forward. But volunteering here, and preparing homemade food for the animals, has allowed me to more effectively unburden myself of, as you say, guilt, as well my surplus of resources. Shall we go back inside? I don’t want to keep you any longer from meeting your new friend, whoever he or she may be.”

They made their way back to the adoptable dog room, where Hannibal introduced Will to two dogs whose personalities and needs were consistent with the level of care Will could provide. Rooster, an elder dog, and Pickle, who was blind in one eye, were both dog-friendly dogs – very important when your pack was nearing the double digits – but both were less likely to be adopted by the average visitor. “Pickle has been here for ten weeks,” Hannibal explained, standing with Will beside the dog’s suite, “and he is becoming more comfortable around people, but as you can see, he is still quite nervous. I was here when his owner brought him, and it was clear to me that the dog had not thrived under his care. In fact, I suspect the eye injury had been inflicted by the owner, despite what the man had said about a marauding raccoon.”

“That’s terrible.” Will crouched down, holding out his hand, hoping to win Pickle over. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of Hannibal’s dog food, which, he thought, didn’t look like chicken at all.

“I was astonished when the man asked for another dog. He seemed to believe that Pickle was the problem, and if only he could find a better animal, he would not need to resort to punishment and cruelty.”

Will did not turn away from Pickle as he conversed with Hannibal, but watched the dog, analyzing its disposition, determining its hopes for behavioral improvement. “I hope you didn’t let him adopt again,” he said.

“Certainly not. I took some special measures, in fact, to assure that he will never have the opportunity to adopt again.”

“Special measures? Like what?”

“I called all the shelters and pet stores in the area, and gave them his identifying details, of course.”

“Ah. I see.”

Hannibal tapped Will on the shoulder, and when Will turned around, Hannibal handed him a strip of jerky. “Try this,” he said.

Will took it and offered it to Pickle, who suddenly became just a little less shy, and approached Will to take it. “Hey, buddy,” Will said, scratching him behind the ears. The dog whined a little, when the distraction of the treat was over, but it no longer cowered in Will’s presence. Will asked Hannibal, “You make the jerky too?”

“I do. Why don’t we take Pickle and Rooster to the visiting room, so you can get better acquainted with them both.”

The visiting room had a couple of chairs and some dog toys. Will sat on one of the chairs, and picked up the toys in turn, seeing how each dog reacted to a human who wanted to play. Will couldn’t take dogs who got overexcited and liked to roughhouse; it was too much for some of the more fragile members of his pack. But he found both dogs to be gentle, and Rooster in particular basked in the attention. Pickle, while friendly to Rooster, was still very nervous about Will, and particularly did not like to be approached on his blind side. Ultimately, Rooster, though he was the older of the two, seemed the more adoptable one, calm and comfortable around strangers, dog and human alike. After some consideration, Will said, “I think I’ll take Pickle.”

“Excellent. He will do well with you.”

In a multipurpose room off the reception area, Will filled out the paperwork and paid the adoption fee while Hannibal excused himself to retrieve Pickle’s vaccination records. When he brought them back, Will thanked him and pocketed them. He stood up, ready to go with Pickle on a leash at his side, but Hannibal remained right next to him, looking oddly like he wasn’t ready for Will to leave yet.

“Well,” Will said, clearing his throat, “I’m sure I’ll see you again. I come here a few times a year.”

He lifted Pickle’s leash a fraction when Hannibal suddenly said, “Actually, I was wondering if you might accept a dinner invitation? At my home. I would love to cook for you.”

Will chuckled nervously. Was this what he thought it was? He’d never been hit on at the animal shelter before. It may not have even been the weirdest thing to happen to him this week, but it was still pretty weird. “Ah, I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said. “That seems like it would be work for you.”

“Not at all. I frequently have people for dinner, and I welcome new guests. New friends.”

Will looked down at Pickle as he shifted from foot to foot. “What do you think, buddy? Is this guy’s food any good?”

Pickle looked up at Will, and his tail wagged once as his mouth dropped open slightly, appearing to smile.

Will’s laugh was more genuine now. “Well, I guess that settles it,” he said, also appearing to smile. “What time?”