Counting Puppies13 mins 202 13 mins 202
In the beginning, there are six puppies.
The first time Lucas finds them under the car that’s perpetually parked in front of his apartment building, it’s an unsurprisingly cold night during the peak of winter. He’s shivering even in a fleece snowboarding jacket, with the tip of his nose feeling like it’s been touched by Jack Frost himself. He isn’t supposed to be out after eight, but a lack of leftovers had compelled him to pay a visit to the convenience store at an icy-cold eleven p.m.
He almost drops the packets of ramen when he first hears the bark.
Usually, he ignores them, but not today. If asked, he’d say that the tiny whines that accompany the particularly fierce bark were what attracted his attention, but it’s actually the soft, distinctly human yelp that follow them.
Frowning, he tightens his grip on the packets and takes a hesitant step towards the car that’s parked across the street from his apartment building. The bushes are in close contact with the side of the car, as if they’ve grown into that position—and it isn’t that surprising, considering how the car’s been parked there since forever.
There’s a boy around his age kneeling next to the car, and he looks up with wide eyes when Lucas approaches him. There’s a few seconds of utter confusion as the two of them stare at each other—Lucas carrying packaged snacks at an hour no sane person would be out, and the stranger clutching his hand, squatting on the dirty sidewalk next to an old Toyota.
“Are you keying the car?” Lucas finally asks, stumped.
He stares at Lucas for a moment, utterly taken aback, then scowls. “Does it look like I’m keying the car?” he asks indignantly, raising his hands palm-up as if to show them to him. “There are no marks on the car. And I don’t even have keys.”
“You can vandalize cars without keys, you know,” Lucas replies before it occurs to him that there’s no point in or reason to argue back. “Not that I’d know. But you’re still really suspicious, kneeling next to an abandoned car and stuff. What are you doing here?”
The boy raises his eyebrows, taking a more defensive stance as he pulls his hood over his head. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I was getting food.”
The boy opens his mouth to stick another accusation on him, but closes it again when he realizes there’s nothing he can say. “I was looking at puppies.”
“Puppies?” Without thinking, Lucas kneels next to him. He moves away, uncomfortable, when his arm brushes his, and Lucas peers under the car. “I don’t see any puppies.”
“That’s because you need light to see them, idiot,” he says, and Lucas glares up at him. He notices his scowl, and raises his phone with the flashlight on. “What?”
“You don’t get to call me an idiot without even knowing my name.”
“Well, then, what’s your name?”
The boy nods slowly. “I think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“Yeah, I live in the building across the street.” Lucas pauses, realizing that he’s not supposed to tell strangers his address. Well, at least he doesn’t know his apartment number. “You didn’t tell me yours. Name, I mean.”
There’s a grudging pause before he answers. “Mark,” he says gruffly, though his voice is pleasant, almost too nice for it to sound mean even when he wants it to. Mark flashes the light under the car, and Lucas gasps.
There’s a litter of puppies under the car, with a larger dog—presumably the mother—who glares back at Lucas with her teeth bared, a sight so frightening that he pulls back involuntarily. He only catches a glimpse of the puppies under her before Mark turns off the flashlight—six of them, with half-closed eyes and so little fur that a fleshy pink cover peeks out from under the coats, fragile-looking as they huddle around their mother.
“Wow,” Lucas whispers, holding the ramen packets a bit closer. “They're so tiny.”
“You have to switch off the light quick, or their mum gets annoyed,” Mark says, and gets to his feet. “Usually, she’s pretty nice, but she gets more easily aggravated during night-time, because it’s much closer.”
“How long have they been here?” Lucas asks, voice much softer.
“A few days.” Mark adjusts his hood, and he catches a glimpse of raven hair under the gray before he pulls it down again. “I’m worried that they won’t survive, actually,” he admits. “It’s too cold for them.”
Lucas purses his lips, thinking about how the air feels much colder and the wind more biting as it whooshes past his ear. “Can’t we help them somehow?”
“I bring them some milk every day, since there’s not much they can eat right now,” Mark says, tucking his hands in the front pockets of his hoodie. “But I can’t bring them home, because my roommate’s allergic.” Then, suddenly, as if hit by a thought, he looks at him hopefully. “Do you think you could—”
“I don’t think so.” Lucas purses his lips even further, looking away uncomfortably. “I’m usually away, and there’s not much I could do for them, anyway. Aren’t there any shelters around here?”
“None that I know of,” Mark replies, looking dejected.
Sighing heavily, Lucas shifts his weight to his other leg. “Isn’t there anyone who might want them?”
“I’ve asked around. There weren’t any takers.”
Lucas bites his lip. “Maybe we could take care of them. For now.”
Mark nods. “Have you ever taken care of a newborn litter before?” he asks, then shakes his head. “Not that I have, but still, it would’ve been nice to have some experience.”
Lucas half smiles. “I’m willing to try.”
The next time Lucas visits the car, it’s daytime.
Mark’s there too, in a different hoodie, this one the color of blueberries. He looks up when Lucas approaches, lifting a hand in a half-wave by way of greeting. Lucas realizes he’s taller than the boy, by about a head, and smiles. The pups are out, too, lying on a square of warm-looking cloth, but something’s off about the sight.
“There’s just four of them left now,” Mark says, sober, and Lucas’s grip on the packet of dog food tightens. “I don’t know if the other two ran away, or if they’re…gone.” His voice becomes quieter when he says gone.
The two are quiet for a long moment, watching the puppies play on the blanket, tumbling over their mother’s back or pawing at each other. Their tails are almost as thin and small as a finger, and they look especially frail, even though it’s not as cold as during the night.
“I get scared,” Mark says quietly, squinting slightly against the sunbeams. “I wonder how long they’ll last.”
Something close to determination grips Lucas when he hears the words, and he turns on his heel, giving Mark a stern look. “Maybe they will last forever,” he says, fully aware of how childish he sounds. “We’ll help them.”
Mark gives him a tiny smile, the corners of his lips curling so slightly it could be mistaken for a wince, but it’s a start. “What have you got?”
“Dog food,” Lucas says, grinning proudly as he lifts the packet. “I googled what we can feed them, but the results were really vague, and plus, they’re street dogs. They could probably survive on scraps, but I’m not exactly a healthy eater, so I guessed we should play safe for now.”
Mark nods, and Lucas kneels on the ground, watching the puppies frolic about as he tears open the packet. Their ears and tails quirk up as soon as the scent of the food reaches them, and they look up with tiny, hopeful eyes as they run towards him, trying to reach the food.
Lucas laughs, feeling ticklish where their paws slip against his jeans as they try to climb his legs. He scoops out the food and feeds them from his palm, smiling when he feels their tongues tickling his skin. Mark’s smile widens.
“They’re adorable,” Lucas gushes, hardly able to contain his excitement as he feeds them, watching them struggle to eat the bits. He looks up at Mark, smiling with such pure, unadulterated happiness that Mark feels like he can actually feel his joy radiating off him in waves.
“I thought they wouldn’t be able to eat solid food, but apparently, they’re older than I thought,” he says, and kneels down next to him. This time, he doesn’t move away when Lucas’s shoulder brushes his. “They’ve even got teeth.”
The mother sniffs around Lucas’s knees, and he throws her some food too, feeling her wet muzzle brush against his skin through his jeans. “Maybe we should name them,” Lucas suggests, ignoring the curious gazes of the onlookers as he feeds the puppies.
Mark takes a deep breath, falling back on his hands as he studies the scene, gaze constantly flicking between Lucas and the puppies. “What do you suggest?”
“That one’s Reese,” Lucas says, pointing to the puppy with the white-and-brown fur. “For Reese’s puffs, because he’s got the brown splotches on the white fur.”
“Reese is a she, but okay.” Mark snorts, amused. He watches the puppies for a longer moment before pointing to a puppy with a brown spot around its eye. “That one’s Nick.”
“For Nick Fury,” Lucas says, and grins. “Because of the eye patch? Clever.”
“Oh, that one’s Hershey,” Lucas says excitedly, as a puppy with a completely brown haircoat ambles over. “He seems sweet, too.”
Hershey looks up at him with his tongue lolling, as if he recognized he was being called. His mouth, wide open, turns up at the corners, making it look like it’s smiling. Lucas coos in delight, scratching between his ears, and he whines.
“They’re all sweet,” Mark says, and picks up the last remaining unnamed dog. “Do I get to call this one Yogi? He has a white collar.”
“I would have picked a better name, but it’s your turn.”
“Can’t think of a better name than Yogi,” Mark says, smiling at the puppy that struggles to get back to the ground, and finally sets him down. “That show was my entire childhood.”
“This is nice,” Lucas says at length, and makes a small noise of contentment at the back of his throat. “Like these are actually our dogs, and we’re just out on a picnic. Can you believe we met for the first time less than a day ago?”
“What does it matter?” Mark shrugs, a small smile playing on his lips as he turns back to Hershey, feeding him another treat from the packet. “Time is irrelevant.”
The weeks pass like seconds, and they suffer the loss of another puppy—this time Yogi—before the month is over. Three left.
Lucas meets Mark and the pups every day behind the perpetually parked car, and feeds the dogs together with him.
He’s late to a meet by a few minutes and Mark’s already playing with Hershey when Lucas reaches them. Mark looks up with a smile that’s so earnest that it makes him warm right down to his toes. He pulls at the hem of Lucas’s jacket, pulling him down beside him, and boys put their heads together, awing at how much the puppy has grown since they first found him.
“He’s become so much bigger, it’s unbelievable,” Mark says in awe, scrolling through weeks’ worth of old pictures of the puppy, and glances up at Lucas with a small smile. “We really have seen him grow up, huh? It feels like we’re parents.”
Reese pulls at Lucas’s shoelaces with her newly-found passion of attacking them, paws scratching harmlessly at his shoes as she tries to find purchase. Nick crawls into Mark’s lap, and his fur looks almost glossy in the sunlight—and at that moment, Lucas feels more comfortable and contented than he has perhaps in years. They feel perfect, those few seconds, like a moment in time stored in a glass of lemonade, warm and yellow and comfy, so nice that he wants to close eyes and squeeze out every drop of the feeling on a warm summer day, even though it’s winter. Like a moment that’s supposed to be.
“It’s the two of you now.”
Lucas looks down at the sorrowful sight of the two remaining puppies, Hershey and Nick. They seem more solemn, less energetic than their usual selves, as if the loss of their sister has affected them perhaps even more than it’s affected him and Mark. Their ears are down, and their mother—who’s now officially named Maple, though she rarely responds to it—has her head on her crossed paws, looking up at them with big, sad eyes.
“You’ll be fine,” Lucas says hopefully, lips pursed in a weak attempt at a smile as he looks at the two puppies on the blanket. But he doesn’t know if he really believes what he says, because the winter’s bleaker, and it seems like February will never end.
Mark’s face is stony. Whatever ragged emotion his face had held is gone, replaced by a mask that’s so firmly stuck to his face that Lucas wonders if he’ll ever be able to pull it off. It wouldn’t have been that big of a concern, but the puppies feel like the only string that ties Lucas to him, and the boy is afraid it might snap.
“Mark?” he asks as the boy turns away suddenly, sniffling in the cold. He gets to his feet, hesitant to follow, and Mark pays no attention, but continues walking away. “Mark.”
But he keeps walking, and he can see his shoulders hunched, sleeves pulled up and jacket crinkling at the hem as he shoves his hands on his pocket, head down. He doesn’t look back, and Lucas doesn’t follow.
Mark’s already getting away.
It’s only two weeks later that Lucas sees him again.
It’s raining, and by coincidence or fateful irony, he’s returning from a late visit to the convenience store again. Lucas wouldn’t have seen Mark if it wasn’t for his habit of taking a quick peek at the puppies every time he crossed the car. He’s wearing a hoodie again, a gray one that’s darkened at the shoulders and head now because of the dampness from the raindrops.
Lucas hurries up to him, stepping carefully over the wet sidewalk and takes his place next to Mark, kneeling and positioning the umbrella so it covers both of their heads. During the last few days, he’d given up on trying to contact Mark, thinking it better to give him space and clear his head. But now, seeing him kneeling in the rain with nothing over his head, something awakens in the boy—maybe it’s because Lucas hasn’t seen him in so long, or maybe it’s something else, but it’s there.
“What were you thinking?” Lucas starts off, upset, blinking hard against the sting in his eyes that he doubts is there simply because of the cold.
“Look.” Mark opens up the front of his hoodie, and Hershey’s russet head pokes out, making Lucas’s heart melt instantly. The boy is solemn as he cradles the puppy, as gentle as ever, with none of the hardness in his eyes that was there that day. “It’s just him now.”
Lucas swallows, reaching out to touch Hershey’s ears. The puppy whines, and he pulls back with a sad smile, noticing Mark watching him quietly. “I ran here as soon as it started drizzling,” he says with a telling quiver in his voice, but he doesn’t try to hide it. “First rain since I found them, you know. Maple is gone—I don’t know where, and Nick—” He breaks off, and Lucas puts an arm around his shoulders reassuringly.
“I’m sorry,” Mark mumbles, and looks at the ground, teeth worrying at the inside of his lower lip. “I shouldn’t have left you alone.”
He doesn’t say whether he’s talking about Lucas or Hershey, but the taller boy puts his hand on his shoulder and squeezes it comfortingly. Mark blinks, and Lucas wonders if the drops that slide down his cheeks are tears or simply raindrops that got caught in his eyelashes.
As softly as possible, Mark unzips the front of his hoodie completely and lets the puppy out, cradling him close to his chest with a hold as gentle as if he were holding a child. Lucas lightly scratches Hershey’s tummy, and the puppy’s paws wave around in the air, making a half-sob, half-laugh break from his throat.
“It’s just you now, buddy,” Lucas says, sniffling but smiling as encouragingly as he can. “It’s just you.”
Mark tugs at the sleeve of his jacket, and Lucas tips sideways, falling against him and pushing him off balance, but Mark’s steady as a rock, and the two are squashed together in an uncomfortable but sweet hug.
“And us, of course,” Mark says, as Hershey tips forward and joins the family hug. Mark smiles, a wider smile this time as he looks at Lucas, who smiles back just as widely, and for a split second, it doesn’t feel like it’s raining. “You, and us.”