A low growl vibrated out of his snarling jaws. Drool trickled over the cruelly glinting teeth and onto the cracked concrete sidewalk where he stood in a threatening stance. His brown eyes, which portrayed nothing but pure hatred, pierced the small toddler’s who stood stiff with fear in front of him. The little girl, four years old at the time, was frozen in a trance, too afraid to run, or even tremble. A scream was caught in the back of her throat that would not escape. A lower growl from her assailer at last set it free.
“Mommy!” the girl shrieked. The dog pounced with a sickening half-growl and half-yelp, and all Asa remembered was hitting the concrete with the dog’s hot breath on her neck.
* * *
“My favorite animal has to be dogs.”
“Hmm?” Asa was jerked out of that nightmarish recollection as she realized her friend Jenny was talking to her.
“Hello?” Jenny joked. “Anybody home in there?”
“Sorry” Asa replied, shifting her crystal-blue backpack to her left shoulder. “I was just thinking.”
Asa shrugged. Not many people knew about the incident of her and the aggressive dog, even though it had been all over the news when it had happened. Asa rubbed her throat gently, running her finger along the familiar five-inch-long scar that ran along the side of her neck, curving into the middle of her throat. Jenny, like most people who knew Asa, had in the past asked where she got the scar, but Asa always replied evasively, “In an accident.” So far, she hadn’t met anyone who had pushed to know the full story.
“Well, you have to see my neighbor’s new puppies,” Jenny went on with her dialogue. “There are three of them, two boys and a girl, and they are just the cutest things in this world.”
“What?” Asa interrupted, totally lost in the conversation.
“Weren’t you listening to me previously?” Jenny chided playfully. “I was talking about Ella’s three puppies.”
Asa shuddered slightly at the thought of the huge Great Dane. “Ella’s Mrs. Lander’s dog, right?”
“Yup, and the puppies look just like her.” Jenny gave a little skip. “They’re just not as big.”
Yet, thought Asa. Ella was a sweet, gentle giant, but her size intimidated Asa immensely. And the thought of three more giants like her… Asa shuddered again.
“Are you all right?” Jenny queried, looking into her friend’s face. “You look pale.”
“Oh no, I’m fine.” Asa straightened and smiled, but it was rather strained and unnatural. Jenny looked unconvinced, but she didn’t pressure Asa into telling.
“So, do you want to come see Ella’s pups with me?” Jenny continued. “Mrs. Lander is letting me come over today, and…”
“No!” Asa almost shouted, with a slight tremble in her voice. Jenny’s mouth fell open. Asa blushed and shuffled her feet more quickly. She was almost home. Just around this corner here…
“I better go, Asa,” Jenny murmured with a half-confused, half-apologetic glance. “See you.”
“Bye, Jenny,” Asa sighed with a slight wave of her hand. When her friend had left her, Asa dashed down the sidewalk to her house, as if a mad dog was right at her heels. The door slammed behind her as she jumped through it and skidded into the kitchen, taking a deep breath as she came to a halt. The smell of homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies greeted her like a warm hug, snug and assuring. Asa dropped her backpack and kicked off her new dress shoes that were required for the school’s dress code. Asa followed the delicious smell to the oven, where the oven light illuminated two pans of yummy goodness.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEEEP! Asa jumped as the timer blared its warning, and the clatter of footsteps was heard on the stairs. Asa’s eighteen-year-old sister, Ann, hurried into the kitchen, snatched an oven mitt, opened the oven door, took out pan number one, set it on the counter, and said, “Hi, Asa,” all in one whirl of activity.
After Ann took out the second pan, she asked, “Could you get out the cooling racks, Ace?”
Asa rummaged through a cluttered cabinet and found the racks. She set them on the counter. “Ann?”
“Yes?” Ann thrust a spatula underneath one lightly toasted cookie, and then let it slide off onto a rack with a helping shake.
“Do you think that people should follow all that advice about facing their fears?”
“Well, I guess,” Ann replied. “I mean, people can’t just live in fear all their lives.”
“But what if the fear is something minor?” Asa touched her scar briefly. “Something that won’t affect your life very much?”
Ann crossed her arms and leaned against the counter, thinking. “All fear affects your life, Asa.” She peered knowingly into Asa’s face. “Are you thinking of dogs?”
Asa nodded, taking a warm cookie and gazing at it steadily. “I just—well, I hate being afraid,” Asa admitted, breaking the cookie in two and watching the crumbs bounce on the tiled floor and skitter under cabinets. “It’s like I’m a wimp, or something. I know most dogs won’t hurt me, but I don’t believe it.”
Ann leaned over and pulled Asa to her side, her shiny black curls touching Asa’s light brown forehead.
“Did something happen at school that scared you, Ace?”
Asa shook her head. “All that happened was Jenny invited me to go see three puppies, and I freaked out.” Asa sighed. “I think puppies are adorable, but they scare me to death.”
Ann’s brown eyes shone with under- standing. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“Are you going to be afraid, or are you going to face your fear?”
Asa was silent, fidgeting with the broken cookie in her hands. At last she looked up. “I think I need the phone.”
* * *
“Isn’t he cute?” Jenny held a floppy-eared puppy in her arms. His little pink tongue hung out of his mouth in a friendly smile, but Asa still couldn’t stop herself from gulping. His teeth looked pretty sharp for a little guy like him.
“Wanna hold him?” Jenny offered, nuzzling the small black-and-white Great Dane. “He’s the cutest of the three.”
Asa hung back slightly. “Are you sure he won’t, um, you know, bite me?”
Jenny laughed. “The closest thing to a bite this baby can manage is a slobbery kiss.”
“Are you sure?” Asa said warily. “I’ve heard puppies sometimes bite.”
“They do, but it only feels like little pinpricks when they’re babies like him,” Jenny responded intelligently. “But he shouldn’t do it. He’s a pretty mellow fellow” She giggled at her own joke before asking again, “Want to hold him? We could sit down so he’s not as wiggly”
“OK,” Asa stammered, lowering herself onto the green grass in the enclosed yard. She eyed Ella lying several feet from her, basking in the sun. Ella’s two other puppies were chasing a small white butterfly, having already lost interest in the two visitors.
Asa held out her hands and Jenny eased the chubby puppy from her arms to Asa’s. Asa shivered, recollecting that warmth that had caused her pain early on in her childhood. Asa was rigid and nervous, but the puppy in her arms didn’t seem to notice. He laid his head lazily on her tense arm, a sigh heaving his chubby middle up. A flicker of a smile crossed Asa’s face, and Jenny’s grin grew wider.
“Like him?” said Jenny, her head cocked to the side a bit, and her blue eyes shining from behind her lilac-rimmed glasses.
Asa didn’t reply for a moment, then she giggled slightly. “Is he hiccupping?”
“He sure is,” snickered Jenny. “He hiccups a lot.”
Asa used her free arm to timidly stroke the puppy’s back, but she steered clear of his mouth. The puppy turned his head towards her hand and Asa gasped as his little mouth lipped her fingers playfully. Asa felt the pinpricks, and shrieked. She scrambled to her feet, the puppy flopping to the ground in Asa’s haste.
Jenny hopped up, too, and touched the hand that Asa was clutching. “What’s wrong? Are you bleeding?”
“No, no,” Asa blurted, pulling away. Tears welled up in her brown eyes, and she turned them downcast. “Look, Jenny, I’ve gotta go. Can you tell Mrs. Lander thanks for me?”
“Well sure, Asa, but are you sure you’re all right?”
“Oh, yes, sure, I’m fine,” Asa replied, proving the complete opposite.
For the second time that day, Asa dashed away from her invisible enemy.
* * *
Asa glanced up from her bowl of Cheerios to look at Ann. “What?”
“Doesn’t a Mrs. Lander live on the next block from here?” Ann asked, scanning the article in the newspaper she was reading.
Asa’s eyes squinted in puzzlement. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
“She was in a car accident yesterday,” Ann replied, eyebrows furrowed in sympathy.
“Let me see that, Ann,” said their mother, taking the newspaper from her daughter. She glanced over the whole article briefly while Asa squirmed impatiently in her chair.
“What happened, Mom? Is she hurt bad?” Asa tried to look over her mother’s shoulder, but she could only see the boldfaced headline: “Woman injured in twocar crash.” Asa gulped.
“It says that Mrs. Lander was taking her dog and her three puppies to a veterinarian’s appointment yesterday,” her mother said, “when a driver shot through a red light and hit Mrs. Lander’s car. The other driver wasn’t hurt, but Mrs. Lander suffered a broken collarbone and other minor injuries and is now being treated in the hospital.”
The three were quiet for a while, Asa more so. She stared intensely into her cereal, as if it would somehow make the whole terrible incident disappear. If Mrs. Lander was hurt in the crash, what about Ella and her puppies?
“Did it say what happened to the dogs?” Asa inquired.
Ann looked over and reported, “The mother dog and two of her puppies died on the scene.
The third was taken to the nearest veterinary clinic.'” The third, Asa thought. But which one was the third?
* * *
“Jenny! Jenny!” Asa wove through the crowd of teenagers gathered at her private school’s lockers, waving wildly at her friend, who was a little ways ahead. Jenny turned, her face a little ashen.
Asa stopped to catch her breath. “Did you see the paper this morning?”
“Yeah.” Jenny looked down at the floor, her brown shoe tracing a blue speckled tile. “Tragic, isn’t it?”
“But which one?” Asa blurted, knowing Jenny would understand what she was talking about. “It wasn’t that black-and-white one that I held yesterday, was it?”
Jenny shook her head. “I called all the vets around town, and finally found the one that had Ella’s puppy It’s the same one. He’s all right, thank goodness, just a little shaken up.”
“But his mom!” Asa was now all worked up despite her dreaded phobia. “Won’t he starve without her?”
Jenny sighed. “I asked the vet there, and he said that they’re bottle-feeding him now.” She sighed again. “He also said Mrs. Lander has decided to put the puppy up for adoption.”
Jenny shrugged. “My guess is she won’t be able to get up and feed him all the times he needs. And besides, she’s in the hospital right now with a broken collarbone.”
Asa saw how much her friend cared about the puppy. “Don’t you want to adopt him?”
Jenny nodded, and said, “But I already have my two rabbits and a cat. Three’s the limit, so Mom says.” Her blue eyes bore into Asa. “But you don’t have any pets.”
Asa blinked, trying to comprehend what Jenny was saying. Then it hit her. “You want me to adopt him?”
Jenny didn’t say anything, but she just stared at Asa, waiting to see what she thought.
Are you going to be afraid, or are you going to face your fear? Ann’s words flashed into Asa’s memory, as vivid and haunting as the day she was attacked. People can’t just live in fear all their lives… All fear affects your life, Asa. Asa squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and then opened them.
“I’ll ask, Jenny.”
* * *
Asa lay on her stomach, watching Hiccups growl at her fingers that danced in front of him. He snatched her hand in his mouth, but Asa only winced as she gently disentangled herself from his grip. Hiccups’ tongue lolled out, and he rolled over onto his back for a belly rub, his tail thwacking the floor and his eyes innocent. Asa giggled, and rubbed the puppy’s tummy, making him wiggle all over. As the back door opened, Hiccups flipped onto his stomach, staring at Jenny as she walked in. She held her arms wide, and Hiccups shot into them. Asa smiled. Fear. It does affect your life. But so does joy.
Hiccups tumbled back into her arms for the remainder of his belly rub.
Yes, Asa grinned. So does joy.