My parents named me Angel. Of course, Landon and Icie Mae Ruggs aren’t really my parents. Even a blind person would know. I am silky and golden, soft and graceful, quick and kind-hearted. I resemble them as much as a puppy resembles a rat.
Their eyes are narrow, bloodshot, and shifty. They never look anyone straight on unless they are drunk. My gaze is steady. People say they feel serenity in my eyes.
They are deep brown—my eyes—and sparkle with intelligence. Unusual intelligence. From the time I began to understand language, I knew I was not like others. I know things I shouldn’t know. I understand things I shouldn’t understand.
Maybe Landon is right. Maybe my uniqueness has something to do with the lightning that struck the garbage around me when I was newborn and helpless, whimpering in a cardboard box.
I’m blessed with a cheerful face. My face is cheerful even when I’m not. People smile when they see me. They say my mouth always seems like it’s ready to laugh. Landon and Icie Mae laugh a lot, especially after they’ve drunk their nightly cocktails of absinthe and burnt sugar in the glow of the scented candles Icie favors. That’s when they throw things at me. Sometimes they throw the lit candles, sometimes their empty tumblers. But I’m quick. I dodge the missiles.
But I can’t always escape their hands. Sometimes they hit me. Once, I bit Landon, breaking the skin on his plump, hairy arm. They burned the bottoms of my feet, and it was a long time before I could walk again without a limp. They laughed loudest and longest after they burned me, and I never bit again.
I never laugh, either. I don’t believe I can. I don’t have anything to laugh about anyway.
Landon Ruggs found me abandoned, newborn, and whimpering in a cardboard box in the dump where he goes when he needs to, when it’s dark, to dump things that shouldn’t be dumped. It was the lightning that led him to me, a rogue bolt from a dry sky that sizzled the garbage around my box.
When I got old enough, he took me to the dump with him. I watched for anyone approaching, and helped him dig through the mounds of garbage. We made deep holes. Then we dropped in the babies. I pawed the garbage back over the tiny bodies. They were the exotic and endangered baby animals that hadn’t survived long enough to be sold to buyers the Ruggs recruited over the Internet.
I guess when they found me, I must have looked like an angel to them. When they weren’t calling out—“Angel! Angel! Time to eat! Time for the park! Time for your bath! Time for your lessons!”—they referred to me as their blessing, their darling girl, their gift from God’s thunderbolt, God’s reason for never giving them children despite years of trying. Because, they told me, if they’d already had the gaggle of kids they’d longed for, they probably would have just turned me over to the proper authorities after Landon scooped me from a dirty cardboard box. The box, Landon said, was already smoking and crackling with fire. He saved me, he said, so I owed him and Icie Mae everything.
They hadn’t expected me to live. But they’d wanted me to. They told me later that there was some quality about me, some aura, that appealed to them and made them want me. Icie Mae said she loved my big eyes and how they sent love right at her even when she was cranky and crusty. Landon loved my softness and the intelligence behind the innocence. So they took good care of me. They took good care of me until I left the safety of being a helpless newborn and an adorable puppy and became old enough to satisfy their needs.
When they went on their procurement trips, it was the only time I felt peace. They hired Mrs. Styfer, the old lady who lived next door, to stay with me. She was hard of hearing, so she kept our TV on loud all day, so loud that, one night, she didn’t hear the smoke alarm go off when she fell asleep on our sofa with a cigarette.
The alarm’s piercing shriek was more brutally painful to me than the smoke, which rose black and thick from the sofa.
I lunged against the alarm—they’d installed it on the wall in the hallway between the kitchen and family room, low enough for easy access—until the cover fell off, and I could grab the wires and yank them into silence. Then I cried and pulled at Mrs. Styfer until she woke. She jumped up, her eyes bulging, and began trying to beat the flames out with cushions, but I showed her where the fire extinguisher was under the kitchen sink, and she managed to extinguish the blaze before it did anything more than ruin the sofa and blacken the wall.
But the smoke was bad. We both coughed, and my throat hurt for nearly a week.
Icie Mae and Landon never hired her again. When they went on their procurement trips, they sent me to stay with the Kidneys, two middle-aged sisters who lived across the street from us. I didn’t mind Lila and Lola Kidney, though their house smelled of mothballs and perfume. And I harbored no ill feelings toward Mrs. Styfer. Indeed, I was grateful to her. She’d given me an idea.
I had to wait a long time before the opportunity arose. But finally, one soft spring night, I saw my chance.
Icie Mae and Landon had just returned from a long procurement trip. Ten stitches, black as spider legs, ran down Landon’s cheek. Icie Mae was missing a front tooth, and her left eye was wrinkly and purple as a rotting plum. Their product was stacked in cages in the basement, sedated into silent sleep. Five buyers were scheduled to come in the morning.
Icie Mae’s candles flickered on the coffee table. She’d lit seven of them, thick pillar candles scented with vanilla. I watched them pour shots of absinthe into their tumblers, dip in a teaspoon of sugar, and then, holding the spoon above the drink, light the liquor-soaked sugar with one of the candles. The sugar burned for a few moments, bubbled, and began to caramelize. They stirred the sugar into the absinthe. The liquor flamed, and they smothered the top of the glass with a plate. They dropped in some ice. They drank. Soon, they’d each drank several shots of absinthe, and the alcohol—combined with the Vicodin they’d swallowed for pain—plunged them both into a deep, snoring sleep. They sprawled on the sofa, Landon’s head in Icie Mae’s lap. The open bottle of absinthe was over half-full.
First, I yanked the wires from the smoke alarm. Then I padded down to the basement, managed to open the cages, and one by one carried the drugged and sleeping animals out to the yard. Luckily for me, my parents were both lazy and practical. I couldn’t be expected to handle house keys in deadbolts, but they knew I needed my yard time, so they’d installed a flap in the back door, just the right size for their angel girl to use. I used the flap to evacuate the baby animals, which were mostly tiny primates, but also a white Siberian tiger kitten, a scrawny koala cub, and a tiny bald eagle. They were all limp and sleeping from the drugs Landon had injected them with. I laid them under the weeping willow tree in the farthest corner of our fenced yard, far away from the house.
Then, carefully, I carried newspapers from the recycle box in the mudroom and set the papers on the coffee table around the bottle of absinthe. I tipped the bottle and rolled it over the papers until they were soaked. Then I tipped the candles. The fire began to chew the papers vigorously.
I left when the flames discovered the sofa on which my parents slept.
I sat silently in the yard, under the weeping willow tree, surrounded by the sleeping animals, until I heard windows pop. Landon’s face appeared at the smoke-blurred kitchen window, his mouth a round hole. Behind him, flames danced, grabbed him, and stroked him. He fell back.
I ran around the yard, crying and bellowing my loudest.
It was dark. The neighborhood slept. I scrabbled over the chain-link fence that separated our yard from Mrs. Styfer’s and threw myself against her door, bellowing so loudly I thought my throat would explode.
It wasn’t hard-of-hearing Mrs. Styfer who heard me, but the Kidney sisters across the street. When they emerged, feet bare, robes flapping, they had to grab me to keep me from going back to my home. I acted frantic, panicked.
“She must want to get back in,” Lila Kidney said, “and save those Ruggs.”
Lola grunted and held me tighter. “They never paid us the last time we took care of Angel,” she muttered.
Sirens blared, and firefighters managed to contain the blaze to my home. My parents were still alive when they were hauled out, carried like sacks over the backs of the firefighters.
But I’m told they died of smoke inhalation before they reached the hospital.
I made the front pages of both daily newspapers, the TV news, and the Internet. The Ruggs were vilified as illegal animal brokers.
Hero is what they call me now. The headlines were: “Hero Golden Retriever Rescues Baby Animals from Burning Home, Alerts Neighbors”.
Millions have watched the footage from the Ruggs’s security camera showing me bursting through the door flap, a baby animal in my jaws, running to the willow tree, setting the animal down, and then charging back into the house for the next rescue.
So many people want to adopt me that they’ve decided to conduct an auction. The proceeds will go to animal shelters.
In videos on TV and the Internet, I’m surrounded by the animals I rescued. My tail is wagging, and I bark my loudest.
No one calls me Angel anymore. I’m Heroe, the “e” added to make it feminine.
I can’t wait to meet my new family.
Marie Anderson is a Chicago area married mother of three millennials. She is the author of two story collections, “What Good Moms Do and Other Stories” and “Sharp Curves Ahead.” Her stories have appeared in about 65 publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, Mystery Magazine, Sunlight Press, and After Dinner Conversation. Since 2009, she has led, and learned so much good stuff from, a writing critique group at a public library in La Grange, IL.