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First Place: Free

By Pete Fanning

I had not been a stellar parent that week. Not that month. Not since getting laid off and certainly not since the job search. So when I arrived home, slumped and defeated after a meeting with HR (turns out health and dental were not part of a lackluster severance package), I was doing my absolute best to leave my worries outside when I heard the playful barks coming from the backyard.

Kylie, my resident babysitter/lifesaver next door, ambushed me as I entered, pocketing her phone and taking my coat, “So, I’m just going to warn you. Ryan, like, has a dog now.”

“He has what?”

At sixteen, Kylie was perhaps the only person in the world besides me receive an honest hug from Ryan, my eight year old son. But she was up to something.

“The dog from the park,” she said, wiping my shoulder.

“Wait,” my voice stalled. “Is he okay?”

She nodded towards the kitchen, a flash of mischief on her face. “Look.”

I hurried to the back door, overlooking the small yard we shared with Kylie’s parents. There was Ryan, chasing after a scraggly mutt. He giggled, yipping with childish abandon while some mongrel of a dog—matted and skinny and most likely riddled with worms—galloped about in circles.

I covered my mouth, warm tears sliding over my knuckles. Ryan howled with delight, pursuing the sack of ribs to the picnic table before the dog whirled around, crouched, and then barked to signal the reversal of roles.

“Do we know whose it is?” I asked, so accustomed to bad news that I couldn’t—didn’t know how to watch my son laugh. Three years of counseling. Now this dog comes along. I’d never seen him so…free.

Kylie reeled me in. “Miss Avery. That dog’s been at the park for the past two weeks. Nosing through the trash. It’s a stray.”

Then I remembered. The dog at the park. I’d been sidetracked with my phone, job leads, prescriptions, insurance people. Again I looked at Ryan, my little worrier. Being a boy.

“Miss Avery?”

I wiped my eyes. Fished a twenty from my purse. Kylie touched my arm, her voice softer. “Please don’t be mad. I mean, have you ever seen Ryan so…?”

Free.

I shook my head. Tethered by guilt so strong it could anchor the moon. “No, I haven’t.”

“And I can help,” Kylie said. Upbeat, closing the deal. “With walks and stuff.”

They’d stopped running and now sat hip to hip. Ryan with his eyes closed, a wash of evening sun on his face. The bony dog panting into his ear. Not asking if he was deaf or blind, not assuming something was wrong with him. Only gushing with unflappable loyalty.

“We can’t—” I began. My voice catching. I offered Kylie the bill—twenty bucks for the whole week. A steal. She snatched the money from my hands and started off.

“Great. I’ll go get dog food. And soap. He stinks.”

(First Place Winner of the 2015 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Contest)

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