If Rufus hadn’t licked my cheek, I wouldn’t be standing onstage in a dog suit with sweat trickling down my neck. The pants aren’t bad, but the black and white top is heavy and the head only lets in air through mesh eyes. The tail keeps swishing, so I grip it, feeling like the Cowardly Lion. At least I don’t have to smile. Chester the Shelter Dog comes with a plastic grin.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” The mayor’s smile blossoms his ruddy cheeks, making him look more like a chipmunk than usual. “Welcome to the Mansfield County Animal Shelter’s first annual Furry Friends Festival.” With each f, he rat-a-tats globules of spit into the crowd.
Two women in the front row wipe their foreheads. Behind them, teens whisper, kids slurp and at the very back, a skinny man in a faded red shirt elbows an elderly lady. I try to spot my brother Brendan, who’s watching Rufus. I catch a glimpse of Brendan’s strawberry blond hair.
The county park, a rare flat space in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is overrun by funnel cake trucks, cotton candy stands and pet product booths, surrounded by trees waving green leaves alongside orange and gold specks.
Behind the crowd, vendors shout, dogs bark and groups laugh, making it hard to hear the mayor as he repeats, “Ladies and gentlemen.”
Definitely more ladies, most with kids or dogs. Near the front, a woman with a collie stands next to a Kool-Aid splattered mom juggling two toddlers. Behind them, teenage girls stare at a boy sauntering past. The smattering of men includes the Kool-Aid mom’s husband, a white-haired man holding a giant soda and the thin man with the red shirt, who’s weaving his way through the crowd.
The weather is perfect, just the right blend of summer and fall, the hot sun balanced by breezy air as crispy as a Triscuit. We only get a few such days each year, and I’m giving up part of this one for the sauna of a dog suit.
The mayor adjusts the lapel of his sport coat. “To open, Mrs. Wilkins’s kindergarten class will present Chester the Shelter Dog with a check.”
That’s my cue. I wave a paw, wishing I could use it to wipe the sweat now rolling down my back. Paul would laugh if he could see me. He’s the one who’s going to a four-year school instead of community college, who has a part-time job at an office instead of a preschool, who’s better than me at everything and knows it. After I adopted Rufus, I got tired of being treated like second best by anyone else.
A toddler bursts from the crowd, the Kool-Aid husband sprinting after him. In front of them, the red-shirted man stares intently at me, his jaw sliding from side to side like it’s about to unhinge. I’m glad the costume hides my face.
“The children raised money for the shelter by selling crafts they made.” The mayor sweeps a hand toward the class.
Mrs. Wilkins hasn’t aged well in the thirteen years since I was in her class. Back then, she was like a cheerful, slightly distracted big sister, who said I had a gift for empathy, a word I had to ask my parents to explain. She looks old now, with her wrinkled maxi-skirt and sturdy sandals.
Then she sprints after a wandering black-haired boy, her yell, “Sweetie! Come back!” snapping me into a memory I’ve kept, crystal clear, like a snow globe.
When we had to put down our beagle, I couldn’t talk in class all week. Once Mrs. Wilkins got me to tell her about it, she brought in a Rudyard Kipling poem called The Power of the Dog, about how a dog can tear at your heart, and read me the part about “when the body that lived at your single will, with its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).” I learned to read on that poem.
Mrs. Wilkins catches the black-haired boy just before he reaches the lip of the stage. “Sebastian, get back with the group.”
A girl with wheat-colored hair spiraling down her back pulls Sebastian into the cluster. I know that girl. She was in my preschool last year, and I feel bad that I can’t think of her name.
“Thank you, Hayley,” Mrs. Wilkins says. Good old Mrs. Wilkins, helping me out again.
I wave a paw at Hayley, who waves back.
The mayor hands Mrs. Wilkins a cardboard check and shuffles offstage. The crowd claps. Brendan waves.