A New Life
Delilah jumped off the bus and settled her backpack more comfortably over her thin shoulders. She turned and waved at her best friend Abby, who returned the goodbye from the back window as the bus rumbled away. Delilah opened the brown, beat-up mailbox and retrieved the four envelopes inside… two bills, one credit card offer, and a Cabela’s catalog. She tucked them under her arm as she crunched down the long driveway toward home. Rounding the corner to the little red farmhouse, Delilah noticed her mama’s old flower beds, overflowing with triumphant green weeds.
She heard the familiar racket of barking dogs, and quickened her pace. She entered the little house, deposited the mail on the kitchen table, and took her backpack with her into her small bedroom. She removed her school clothes, neatly folding them and returning them to her dresser. Then she slipped on a pair of tattered jean shorts and an old blue t-shirt before heading out to the shed.
As she opened the door, the dogs stopped barking and the smell hit her like a brick. Her eyes watered as usual, and she swallowed hard against the familiar urge to gag. After the first couple of breaths, it wasn’t as bad, and she opened the bag of dog food that was nearly as tall as her. She scooped two cupfuls of kibble into each dog’s cage, returning to the bag again and again.
The males watched her every move, and she was careful to work slowly, so as not to frighten them. A few began devouring the food right away. Others hardly gave it a sniff.
Delilah then hefted the big jug from the shadiest corner, pouring a little of water on her hand to be sure it was still cool from that morning. It was. Her thin arms shook with exertion as she finished filling the last dog’s water bowl at the end of the row.
She stepped out into the bright afternoon sun to refill the jug for the next morning, taking in big lungfuls of fresh air. She propped the shed door open, hoping the dogs would enjoy a little bit, too.
After her chores with the males were complete, Delilah cracked the door to the second shed, and peered in.
“Hi Daddy,” she said softly as she tiptoed to his side.
“You done with the males?” He didn’t look up as he lit his cigarette.
“Yes, Daddy. They’re all fed and watered.”
“Good. Then you can help me get this litter of Poms ready,” Daddy said, gesturing to a cage on the top shelf. “We’re takin’ them to the store today.”
“Today? But, they’re — “
“They’re goin’ today,” Daddy interrupted her, reaching to lift a cage down onto the large wooden table. The mama cowered as Daddy undid the latch and opened the wire door.
“Grab that bitch and keep’er still,” Daddy growled, the cigarette dangling from wet lips. The little dog began to snarl but relaxed a little when Delilah reached an arm in and gathered the ball of fur to her chest.
Daddy snatched each pup by their necks, and dumped them in a plastic bin. They yapped some and tried to stand, but were still wobbly. After all, they hadn’t been out of the cage where their mother had given birth to them in a litter of six. Only five survived, but Delilah knew that they’d bring in $500 each, if they weren’t sickly. Her mama never liked to wean pups before they were ten weeks old. She wouldn’t have approved of Daddy selling them so young, before they were ready, Delilah thought.
The little mama whined as she watched her pups being taken, but didn’t struggle. Delilah resisted the urge to reassure her and stroke her fur. Daddy didn’t like her to talk to the dogs at all. “Like an ear o’corn,” he’d say. “Ya don’t talk to an ear of corn, now do ya? You don’t want to start lovin’ something, girl, ‘specially no pup. Ya start to love somethin’, then they’re gone. Nope — better to keep your distance. I don’t want to ever hear you talkin’ to pups, you hear?"
Daddy grabbed the last pup, then carried them out to the other shed, where he’d do his best to fix them up proper, to be taken to the pet store in the city.
As soon as the old rickety door slammed, Delilah hugged the mama tight. “It’s alright,” she whispered in the dog’s ear. “I know you’ll miss your pups, but I promise, someone’s gonna take good care of them.” This was the dog’s ninth litter of puppies. Although she was getting older, she was still one of the best breeders. For this, Daddy gave her one of the cages on the top shelf where filth wouldn’t leak on her. Nevertheless, she was a mess. Her fur should have been a silky white, but because she’d never been bathed or groomed, it was a dull and matted gray.
This dog was Delilah’s favorite mama. How she chose her favorite, she wasn’t certain — maybe it was the way the little mama took care of her pups. She made sure that each was as clean as she could get them, and always treated them gently, unlike some of the other dogs. Or maybe it was her eyes, deep brown and intelligent — and oh so sad.
Delilah looked at the other mamas, all in their own wire cages. There were females of every breed, but in here they all looked the same. Each was covered in fleas, hair matted and dirty. Their cages were covered in poop and puddles of urine. All of them looked like they wished they were dead.
“Well, you comin’ or what?” Daddy shouted, so Delilah slipped the mama back in her cage. With a final pat and a look over her shoulder, she hurried into the yard, across the brown grass, and into the work shed.
Daddy was scrubbing the puppies in a tub of water. They wriggled and whined, then shivered in a box where they were deposited to dry. Delilah scurried to rub them off with an old towel. She picked each one up, gently checking their eyes and little mouths. She couldn’t resist a smile as one of the little round cotton balls gave her a tentative lick.
Daddy shot her a look. “Nasty little dogs, these ones. Don’t you ever let yourself think these here pups are cute. They’re money, that’s all. A bunch of one hundred dollar bills,” he said as he dumped the fifth puppy into the box.
“Okay, Daddy,” Delilah said, setting the pup down with the others. She didn’t want to make Daddy angry today. She’d made him plenty mad yesterday, when she was helping him work with the males. Daddy had made her hold one of the labs while he cut the chain out of his neck where it had grown into the skin. The chain had been put on him when he was a pup, and if they hadn’t cut it out, it would have killed him for sure. She had cried when the dog snapped through the muzzle. Daddy told her to shut up and hold on, and he had smacked her with the hairy back of his hand.
Daddy peered in the tub, pleased with the results of his washing. “Good. Now go fetch my cigarettes and get in the truck,” he barked, patting the empty front pocket of his dirty t-shirt. “We’ll get McDonald´s for supper on the way back.” Delilah nodded and ran into the house.
The pack of Marlboros sat on the coffee table by Daddy’s tattered armchair, next to a large framed photograph. Everything else in the house was covered in a thick layer of dust, but the photo and its frame were always perfectly clean.
Delilah stopped a moment and gazed at the picture. In it, a woman with blond hair twisted into a long braid smiled serenely. She held a small brown poodle, one of the first dogs she’d ever bred all on her own. The woman’s front tooth was just a little crooked, but there was no doubt that she was beautiful. Delilah pulled at her own braid, then felt her front tooth with her tongue. Just the same. She blinked, grabbed the cigarettes, and scurried out the door.
Daddy was just putting the box of puppies in the back of the old dented truck. Delilah’s eyes stung as she climbed in the cab, thinking about how the puppies would never see their mama again. Kinda like she’d never see hers again, either.
Dust billowed as they bumped down the long driveway to the main road.
“Christ!” Daddy snapped as he jerked the truck to the right. Delilah looked up to see three police cars coming down the driveway toward them. Daddy’s big fingers tightened around the steering wheel as he shifted into park. “You just sit there and keep your mouth shut,” he said.
The police car stopped, and an officer stepped out. He walked to Daddy’s open window and peered inside.
“You need somethin’, sir?” Daddy snarled.
The officer’s suspicious eyes drifted over the little girl, then settled on the large sweaty man. “Yes, sir. We’ve had reports of a puppy mill being run out here. This your property?”
“It is. Ain’t no puppy mill here though, so you best be gettin’ gone.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we have a warrant to take a look at your property. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait here while my boys go in and take a look around.”
Delilah saw two other officers walking toward the house — toward the sheds, where there were over one hundred dogs kept in small wire cages.
The officer cleared his throat. “Could you step out of the truck please, sir?”
“You want me to get out of my own truck in my own driveway? You come on my property and harass me and my girl here, and for what? Some goddamn report of a puppy mill?” Daddy’s face was turning red, sweat dripping from his forehead as he stared at the cop. No one spoke. Delilah reflexively curled herself inward, preparing for the explosion.
Daddy continued to glare at the officer for a few moments, still as stone. Then something changed. Was it a drop of his broad shoulders? A weary tilt of his head? Whatever it was, the explosion didn’t come. Instead, Daddy swung the door open with a deep sigh.
“Daddy!” Delilah gasped. “Daddy! Where are you going?”
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your mouth shut?” he said through his clenched teeth.
“Y-yes sir.” Delilah watched as Daddy stepped out into the bright sun and was led over to the shade of a big oak, his words and the policeman’s too low to hear.
Delilah pulled her long colt legs up to her chest as her heart pounded. Tears pricked her eyes, yet she tried to control them, like Daddy liked her to do.
A dark-haired police officer walked to the truck.
“You okay, sweetie?” asked a tall, dark-haired officer, poking his head in the window.
Delilah nodded. She saw the officer’s eyes flash to the truck bed, to the box of puppies, then back to her.
“Just relax there. Everything’s gonna be fine,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly.
In the rearview, Delilah saw the two officers returning from the house. One of them said something sharp, and the other handcuffed Daddy.
“No!” Delilah yelled as she scrambled out the door, snatching her arm free from the dark-haired officer as he tried to grab her arm. “Daddy!” She ran to her father, clutching tight to his leg. “What’s going on?” Tears streamed down her face, but she didn’t care anymore.
Daddy was still for a few moments. The officers cleared their throats and went to stand by the truck.
“Delilah,” he said as he crouched down. The hairs on the back of Delilah’s neck began to stand up — Daddy never called her by name.
“I’m going away for awhile,” Daddy said. His face was lined and whiskery.
“Going away? Where?”
“It does! It matters to me!”
“No, it don’t. It only matters what happens to you.”
“Daddy... but...” Delilah couldn’t continue through her sobs. “Please... don’t leave!”
”They’ll take good care of you. You’ll go live someplace nice.”
“I don’t want to live someplace nice. I want to be with you!”
Daddy leaned back to look in his daughter’s face. His eyes were red, and to Delilah’s surprise, she saw them start to water. She threw herself at his chest, breathing in his familiar odor of cigarettes, dog, and Juicy Fruit gum. “You can’t go! Don’t leave me! You can’t leave me, too!”
“I can’t do this anymore,” Daddy rasped in Delilah’s ear. “I’m not made to be a Daddy, bringin’ up a girl on my own. I just can’t do it. You oughtta be with people who can take care of you. People who are good. People more like your momma.”
Delilah clung to him fiercely, her tears soaking his t-shirt. They stayed that way for a long moment. Then Daddy stiffened and pulled away.
“Quit crying, girl!” His voice had returned to its hard steel. “I gotta go, there’s no gettin’ around it, so stop cryin’ about it.” Then he looked up at the officers and said, “Now, get me outta here.”
“No!” Delilah clawed and kicked as an officer helped her Daddy to his feet and led him away. She struggled wildly in the officer’s arms. “Daddy! Please don’t go! I love you!”
Daddy turned, looking back at his daughter. “I love you, too,” he said for the very first time, voice gruff and broken. Then he got into the car, and it slowly drove away. Delilah felt the world spinning, heard ragged whimpers piercing the humid air. It was then, dust billowing behind the police car, that she knew she was all alone.
Two hours later Delilah had all her things packed in two plain brown suitcases. As she walked through the living room for the last time, she sat in Daddy’s old chair, leaning back and letting it rock as she listened to the commotion outside. Men and women from the SPCA were busy taking the dogs out of their cages and loading them into vans. They said they’d give them medical attention and find good homes for them all.
Delilah looked at the photo of her mother, reaching out to touch the cool glass with her fingertips.
“Mama?” she whispered, “I know you can hear me in heaven. I’m going away from here. I’m going away from Daddy. He said it’d be nice there, that I’d like it. I hope I do. But I miss you, and I’ll miss him.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I’ll love you always.”
Delilah picked up the large frame. She unzipped her suitcase and slid the photo in, on top of her neatly folded socks.
Then she lugged the suitcases outside and sat down on the porch steps to wait, staring silently at her knees. Suddenly, she stood up.
“Sir?” Delilah called to the dark-haired officer with the kind eyes, “Can I get one more thing before we go?”
He looked up from his clipboard and gave the girl a lopsided smile. “Of course.”
The door to the shed was propped wide open. Delilah poked her head in, fighting not to gag at the onslaught of the familiar stench. A gray-haired lady looked up in surprise. She was just taking Delilah’s favorite mama out of her cage.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her eyes narrow.
“I would like to take that one with me, ma’am,” Delilah whispered.
The woman looked at Delilah with disapproval, at her scuffed tennis shoes, her old but carefully patched jean shorts, her long blond braid. The girl´s face was heart-shaped, sprinkled with freckles. She was missing one of her front teeth, the larger one coming in crooked next to the gap. But what struck the woman were the girl’s eyes — blue as the summer sky and lonely as the depths of the ocean.
The woman nodded to herself. “Well, it’s really against policy. This dog needs attention. She needs grooming. She needs nourishment and socialization.”
Delilah nodded and dropped her head like a scolded puppy.
“And most of all, she needs love.” The woman gently handed the filthy dog to the girl. The mama cuddled close to Delilah’s chest, and turned to lick her. A ghost of a smile flickered on the little girl’s face with such an outward show of affection.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Delilah breathed, then turned and walked to the patrol car, holding the mama close. She looked around the yard of the little house where she had lived all her life. She looked at the rusty old cars, the brown overgrown grass, the weeds growing in her mama’s old flowerbed. She thought about the petunias that used to grow there when her mama was still well enough to garden. Teardrops fell on the mama’s fur. Settling herself in the back seat, Delilah looked back once more, then forward to the future, to a new home - a new life.