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In the Pound, Near Breaktime .:. kentbrewster.com

This story appeared in the October 1995 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, edited by Algis Budrys, and was a finalist for the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.

You sneak another look at your watch. Twenty minutes to lunch, assuming your relief shows up on time. Saturday mornings are always the busiest. Rainy ones are really bad. People get to feeling cooped up and start looking around the house for something to do, some unpleasant duty they've put off for a long time.

Next in line is a tall guy in a black leather jacket, with a small, brightly dressed girl balanced on his shoulders. The kid is squirming--she has already spotted the puppy cages on the far wall. Also squirming is the disposable pet carrier in the guy's left hand. It shifts heavily as he sets it on the counter and a garbage-gray paw scrambles out through one of the airholes. The paw bends at an impossible angle and reaches up to work at one of the carboard locking flaps. Its claws almost form an opposable thumb. One furious yellow pus-weeping eye, pupil slitted to a knife edge, glares out at you. The box reeks of tomcat: pissy, wild, and uncut.

"Stray?" The guy jumps when you speak. The little girl's eyes snap down to yours and go big and round. "The animal. It's a cat, right?"

"Yeah." You start filling out the impound service request form. The big guy stares down at the pencil in your hand, fascinated.

"And is it a stray, or is it yours?"

"Uh, no. He's not ours, and I'm pretty sure he's nobody else's. The people who fed him moved away last winter and he's been hanging around and getting skinny. And he's eating our cat's food and spraying all over the place, you know?" You nod, your reading glasses slipping down your nose for the umpteenth time today. You shove them back up with a finger. He falters at the gesture, but continues. "Uh, anyway, he was in the garage this morning when I went out, so I kind of cornered him and got him in the box."

"Did he bite or scratch you?"

"No. I was careful."

"Good." You take down his name, address, and closest cross-street, and pass a Form Number One across the counter. "Read and sign this, please." Simple, direct, and brutal, the form says that the signer gives up all claim on the animal and understands that it has essentially no chance of being adopted during its seventy-two-hour reprieve before being destroyed. People who change their minds do so now, or never.

He signs, quickly, not reading the form.

"Did you want the box back?" You'll have to call somebody with a rolling cage and leather gloves, if so.

"Uh, yeah, actually. We use it for our cat."

"Ah. I wouldn't recommend putting another cat in this carrier. The smell would probably upset it. We sell them in the pet supply store for three dollars, though."

"Oh, okay. Thanks." Finished with business, the tall guy ambles off towards the wall of puppy cages, his daughter shrieking her delight. You buzz Holding and one of the teenage volunteers comes out and takes the box.

The imprisoned cat screams "Noooooo!" all the way down to the concrete blockhouse.

A Mexican-looking father-and-son duo steps up next, riding herd on a shaggy nuisance that looks to be part Labrador and part Winnebago.

"Whurf?" The dog stands on his hind legs, straining his dirty clothesline leash to the limit, and places his hairy paws on the counter. His eyes are merry and brown, twinkling with intelligence. He's having a wonderful time. You chuckle in spite of yourself. "Whoof!" He unreels a foot of laughing pink tongue in your direction, which you dodge.

The father nudges the son, gently. The boy steps forward, trying to do the manly thing, but fails to conceal the tears in his eyes. "We have to turn him in," says the boy, softly. "He's too big to go where we're moving."

"Okay. That's fine. You need to fill out this form and read and sign this one." The dog's name is Blackie. The family lives out somewhere in lettuce-picker country, where a dog as big as a horse can run wild and free. Blackie is male, three years old, housebroken, and very friendly.

He is also doomed. Nothing short of a miracle will see a beast Blackie's size adopted out in three days.

The boy hesitates over Form Number One. "Somebody'll take him home, right?"

You ruffle Blackie's ears, gently taking the handworn loop from the boy's hand. The people behind them in line shuffle their feet. You do your job, the hardest part. "Oh, I think so. He's a good boy. Aren't you, buddy?"

"Whoof!" A definite yes.

"Blackie. It's Blackie, okay? You got that down, right? He won't answer to anything but Blackie."

You nod and apologize. The boy signs Form Number One, hugs Blackie a final time, and departs, his face working hard. He doesn't even glace at the wall of puppies.

Blackie drags the girl from Holding out the back door towards his destiny, woofing and wagging his tail all the way.

"Where's Mommy? I want Mommy!" A talker appears next, a smart one in a wire cage carried by a tired-looking woman of middle years. "Mommy?" It looks to be a purebred Pekinese, a fat, elderly male, neutered a long time ago. It speaks in an eerie, childlike croak, the voice of a kindergartener with a sore throat.

"Mommy's sick, sweetheart. Mommy had to go away." She looks down her long nose at you and frowns. "Am I in the right place? I mean, do you normally handle the, ah, euthanasia cases?" Her breath smells of tobacco and gin.

You stare back, as blankly as possible, which is pretty blank. "Yes, ma'am. But the Society handles boarding and adoption as well--"

"No. That won't be necessary. This little fellow's long past his prime. He's got a bad back, and he doesn't listen well any more. And my mother . . . isn't really in a position to care for him much longer." And besides, you suddenly realize, you hate the poor little bastard, don't you?

"Mommy?"

"Hush, darling." She fills out the service request, not bothering to write down his name. She checks the NOT FOR ADOPTION box with a firm stab of her gold Cross pen. She slides the flimsy back to you, along with Form Number One.

Not that he had a chance in hell anyway.

A pair of uniforms cut in behind the counter next, ignoring your pained look. They've got a scared-looking pit bull on an improvised pole-and-noose arrangement that looks like it started life in a swimming pool supply shop. The rope is too tight for you to make out what the dog is trying to say; only low growling sounds reach your ears. Without a word, the officers grab a service request form and haul their prisoner out towards the blockhouse.

Next is a hatbox full of mother cat and kittens, all dead on arrival. The reporting party is a pair of sobbing sorority girls from State. They want you to send the cops right now. It seems that the cat was a talker as well, but the all-too-common kind that only said "Shut up, dammit!"

Mama cat had the rotten luck to drop a litter of six under the back steps of a neighboring frat, yowling her one and only phrase over and over again at top volume, until some future captain of industry dragged her out and stomped her head into the dirt.

You do your best to calm the girls down. Hysteria is highly communicative in your line of work. After completing their forms and calling the morgue, you direct the pair towards your supervisor's office. A peace officer complete with handcuffs, and badge, she has full arrest power and hates college boys even more than you do. Also her door is right next to the kitten cages. With luck, you might have just done a tiny bit of good.

Next, a Filipino groundskeeper from the local muni brings in the monthly load: a large crate on a handtruck, full of geese, coots, and mallards, all quacking "Fore!" over and over again. Most of them have been crippled by irate golfers and will be put down at once. The few remaining survivors will rest, recuperate, and no doubt fly straight back to their home water hazard to run the gauntlet once more. The forms for wild birds are different and take a long time to complete. You have to examine each bird by hand, which causes the line to back up almost to the door.

Finally, a small, dark hand falls on your shoulder. Lunchtime, at last.

"Sorry I'm late. I brought you a treat, though." Vonette hands you a greasy brown paper sack. Warm and solid, its heavenly aroma causes your stomach to do a cartwheel of happy anticipation. Banana bread. Vonette's specialty.

You spin on your stool and give her a quick, spontaneous hug. Things are looking up--the rain has quit and you aren't going to have to eat another stale vending machine burrito.

"Thanks, honey," you say, looking at your watch again. "See you in . . . forty-eight minutes." Just a tiny little jab, to keep Vonette on her toes. She smiles and shakes her head, already beckoning forward the next guy in line.

Holding the bag between your teeth and drooling, you jump down off the stool and knuckle-walk to the coffee urn. A fresh cup of mud, a big hunk of banana bread, and some good clean rain-washed air will do you a world of good.

You make your way out the back door, cradling the steaming mug in both hands. Once outside, you switch the mug to your right foot. Your big toe curves neatly through the handle and grips tight. You three-hand your way up the drainage spout to the roof, bag of bread still clenched in your teeth, not spilling a drop of coffee.

Up on the roof waits your private sun deck, a cast-off Alpo pallet with a corroded aluminum lawn chair you salvaged from the Society's dumpster. You settle into the chair, open the bag, and stuff yourself. Vonette's baking is heavenly, as usual, and the coffee tastes as good as it smells--it must have come from a fresh pot.

You check your watch again. Eighteen minutes left. Time enough to relax and get some sun. You set the alarm for five minutes to one. You have to be very careful not to be late--you never want to see the other side of the blockhouse door again.

But you try not to think about that, or the faint, distorted echoes of a thousand panicky voices trapped between the gray cement buildings. The sun warms your fur, the air smells of new grass, and your belly is full.

Far above your head, seagulls float in lazy circles, calling your name.

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