Heath froze as a fat skunk waddled from the underbrush.
“Oh, no. Oh, shit.” He’d been sprayed once as a kid and never forgot the horrible smell. It had lingered on his skin for days. I’m not a threat, he tried to telepathically tell the animal. You have a whole beach and a whole woods to walk around in.
But the skunk didn’t get the message. It waddled closer, then stopped, sniffed, and raised its tail to the sky.
Heath turned, ready to run. If he got a good enough jump, he might be out of range when the animal did let loose. Then something else rustled. Not another one. Leave it to him to stumble upon a pair of lovebird skunks pissed off and ganging up on him. He glanced back in time to see the three-legged stray dog hop toward the skunk. It growled, its teeth bared. Then, to Heath’s utter surprise, the skunk turned around. The dog barked, and at that, the skunk waddled back into the woods as fast as it could.
A rush of breath left Heath’s lungs. “Thanks, buddy.”
The dog eyed him. Heath expected it to growl again, but it must have recognized him from all the scraps he’d tossed it, because it hopped toward him with its tail wagging. Funny-looking thing, borderline ugly, black with some brown along its haunches and bright yellow eyes.
Heath reached out, and to his surprise, the dog let him pet it. He could feel every bone, ribs and hips and skull, and his hand came away caked with dirt and sand. “You’re a mess, buddy.”
The dog barked in response, though whether agreeing or protesting, Heath couldn’t tell. He squatted down and petted it again. This time the dog leaned into him, as if it hadn’t felt human touch in a long time. Maybe ever.
“I’m a mess too,” he added. His legs still shook with leftover adrenaline and the effort of bolting through the woods, and after a minute he dropped to a seat. He’d probably ruin a brand new pair of pants, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t be wearing them again anytime soon.
Two seagulls swooped low overhead, squawking and searching for food. Somewhere behind him, Heath could hear the low rush of cars driving by. Other than that, silence wrapped around him. His eyes drooped with exhaustion. The dog nestled next to him and nudged Heath’s leg with its nose.
He looked around, taking stock. Possibly, he was trespassing. Probably, he’d wake up with one hell of a backache. But right now, he didn’t have the energy to move. He yawned. The dog rested its chin on his leg, and that was all it took. Heath curled onto his side, found a swell in the ground to rest his head, and went to sleep.
Soldier of Love is available right now at all major retailers, if you'd like to read the whole story. Animals really can change and save our lives, can't they?
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