Pick a Puppy

The little girl waited eagerly in the car, knee jiggling up and down, fingers fidgeting with the hem of her sweater, eyes roving back and forth – trying fruitlessly to see the blue door through the frosted glass of the car window. Her brother sat in the seat next to her. He tried to hide his own eagerness with the nonchalant nature of a teenager, failing miserably, his spastic leg jiggling as bad as hers.

The blue door opened, and she and her brother perked to attention, sitting straighter in their seats. Their mother, her arms wrapped around her for warmth, approached the vehicle with quick steps common in February weather. She opened the door on the girl’s side, sliding the heavy door open with minimal effort. Her mother’s words were quiet when she spoke, carrying a softer version of her children’s eagerness.

“Ready?”

The girl and her brother followed their mother to the door, slipping and sliding on the icy sidewalk. The girl felt her heart pounding in her chest, the “ba-bump ba-bump” of the organ a steady beat to set her breathing to. She tripped on the threshold’s steps, her toe banging painfully into the concrete, and caught herself on her brother’s sleeve. It was an indication of his own nervousness that he didn’t snap at her immediately, simply helping her regain her balance instead. They shared a look as their mother reached for the brass handle; this was what they had been fighting, prodding, convincing their parents for. The door opened, the sound of sharp yips and a deep bark escaping through the open frame, resonating in the girl’s bones. A poodle rushed to greet them, their mother walking by it without pause, and the girl looked to her father, standing by the doorway, for permission to pet the animal. He nodded his assent and she patted the poodle’s head with a gentleness uncommon to her nine-year-old fingers.

The yipping continued, distracting her from the poodle’s soft fur, and for the first time she noticed the two small puppies. Her brother, not wasting any time, had seated himself on the carpet beside them, trying to encourage the larger one over to him. Its floppy ears were coloured a dark brown, a beige patch over its left eye to match. He was enamored by it.

The girl looked at the other puppy, the runt of the litter, she’d later learn; it was less hesitant than its sibling, venturing away from the couch where its mother laid quietly. The girl hesitated, suddenly nervous, but her father nudged her forward, his hand on her shoulder guiding her towards the small animal.

Tiny and adorable, the puppy approached her eagerly when she knelt beside it, its floppy ears coloured champagne, the rest of it a snowy white. She reached out her hand and the dog bumped its head into her palm, impatient for her affection. The girl ran her hand over its soft fur, relishing the feeling of the velvety coat. Encouraged by the puppy’s enthusiasm, she picked it up, settling it onto her lap, the puppy wiggling every which way.

“They’re both girls.” The owner spoke to the girl’s parents, “There was a boy, but unfortunately it didn’t survive.”

After making a sympathetic noise, the girl’s mother replied, “I never realized that Bichons had spots. All the pictures I’ve seen have been all white.”

“Oh, the colours will fade. Most puppies have them, but they don’t usually stay once they’re full grown.”

Thoughtful, the girl stroked the puppy’s ears. Her brother had similarly situated himself with her puppy’s sibling, the other pup nestled in his lap. There was a calm about him that the girl rarely saw and she appreciated the happiness that the brown-patched puppy had granted him. Not that it would matter.

“I want this one!” The girl’s high pitched voice interrupted the adult’s conversation, quickly drawing everyone’s attention to her.

“But I want this one!” The fragile peace between the girl and her brother shattered, their comradery scattered to the wind, the cease-fire instantly extinguished.

“Mom!”

“Daddy!”

“She always does thi-“

“He always gets his w-“

“Enough!” Sharp and loud, her mother’s voice penetrated the rapid argument. Her face, embarrassed and annoyed, left no room for disagreements. “We are going to decide this together, as a family, or you will not be getting a dog! Understood?!”

The girl and her brother nodded, solemn and petulant, clutching their chosen puppy closer to their chests. Both stubborn, it seemed unlikely that they would agree.

“Let’s do this, we’ll put the dogs on one end of the room and you’ll both call them over. Whichever makes it to you first is the one we’ll take home.”

Gentle and careful, the girl stood with the tiny pup in her arms, its body wiggling in confusion, and walked over to the wall by the door. The girl’s brother followed with the brown-patched puppy, struggling to hold the squirming animal. They placed them down together and the girl’s father positioned a hand on each, his firm grip holding the animals in place. He smiled at his children encouragingly, his eyes shining with his own excitement. The girl’s father had grown up with a household full of dogs and had wanted one as long as his children had.

Impatient, the girl and her brother walked to the starting point and both knelt onto the carpet. Their mother sat on the couch in between them and the puppies, the breeders watching on from the doorway, amusement colouring their features.

“Ready?”  Two heads rapidly nodded. “Go!” The girl’s father released his hold on the puppies.

Nothing happened at first. Confused, the two animals stayed where they were until the girl’s father nudged them, his hand lightly urging them forward. The girl had never felt so much excitement as she did watching that tiny puppy take its first steps in her direction. Her heart pounding, she cajoled the puppy with champagne ears towards her, trying to win its heart with a repeated “here puppy, here”. Her brother, eager and fervent, was trying just as adamantly to coax Brown-Patch over to him.

The puppies toddled their way to them, taking their time, exploring smells and sights along the way. The distance between them, a span of less than three feet, seemed to barely grow smaller as the animals zig zagged their way across it. Aimless and uncaring, the two puppies stopped to sniff at the girl’s mother’s feet and she had to redirect them with her toes, trying to keep her own elated smile off her face.

Dogged, Champagne-Ears resumed her path to the children but Brown-Patch had other ideas, a more familiar concept. She had caught sight of her mother and made a beeline towards her, ignoring all attempts the girl’s brother made to redirect her back to him.

Champagne-Ears took her final steps towards the children and the girl’s brother reluctantly picked her up as the victor. Happy and unknowing, the puppy settled comfortably in his arms and licked at his hands holding her. His face let slip a smile, a reluctant quirk of his lips; he didn’t feel like he had lost.

Giddy, the girl looked to her parents for confirmation, an acknowledgement that her puppy had won, and they both smiled in response.

“What should we call her?” The girl’s mother asked.

They called her Niki.

* * *

Eleven years later, on a different cold winter’s day, the girl sits in the back seat once again and cradles her old puppy in her arms. Distraught, she rubs the dog’s belly and its now white ears, trying to contain her tears. Her father drives his new truck, a shinier replacement for their old van, and her mother fights her own tears in the passenger seat. The girl’s brother refused to come.

The girl thinks back to the anxious waiting and the silly bickering. Bittersweet, she recalls her innocent excitement and the instantaneous love she felt for the animal in her arms. She remembers the energetic little puppy and the memories that led to this moment.

In a few moments they will arrive at the vet office and they will have to say goodbye, but until then, she’ll cry her not-so-silent tears and cherish the puppy she picked.

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