Phil Giunta



Phil Giunta’s novels include the paranormal mysteries Testing the Prisoner, By Your Side,

and Like Mother, Like Daughters. His short stories appear in such anthologies as A Plague of Shadows, Beach Nights, Beach Pulp, the ReDeus mythology series, and the

Middle of Eternity speculative fiction series, which he created and edited for Firebringer Press. As a member of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, Phil also penned stories and essays for Write Here, Write Now, The Write Connections, and Rewriting the Past, three of the group's annual anthologies.


Phil is currently working on the second draft of a science fiction novel while plotting his trimphant escape from the pressures of corporate America where he has been

imprisoned for over twenty-five years. Visit Phil’s website at: www.philgiunta.com.

Find him on Facebook: @writerphilgiunta and Twitter: @philgiunta71

Take a Cue from the Canine

Phil Giunta



Huddled inside the cramped compartment of the roll top desk, Joel flinched as the beagle scratched and pawed at the antique wood slats. “Rusty, no.” He ran a soothing hand over the dog’s belly. “It’s gonna be okay. We just need to be quiet for a little longer.”

Joel knew his best friend was not only scared, but probably still in pain. Resting his head against the hard surface, Joel tried to ignore his own set of freshly inflicted bruises.

A liquid lunch had cost Uncle Larry yet another job, sparking his worst whiskey-fueled rampage in months. Joel’s attempts to calm him had been rewarded with the usual beating, but the confrontation had turned life-threatening after Larry kicked Rusty across the living room and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from beneath the couch. When he’d stood up too quickly and toppled backward—blasting a hole in the ceiling—Joel snatched up Rusty and fled across the yard to the garage.

Ten minutes had passed since then. Maybe he’s too wasted to come after us.

The slamming of a door told him otherwise.

“Get out here, boy! You and that damn dog ain’t nothin’ but a burden to me. If it wasn’t for takin’ care of you, I could’ve—” the crack of wood followed by the shatter of glass told Joel that his uncle was stumbling along the far side of the garage.

“Damn it! Look what you made me do. I was gonna sell that. Sonna bitch. You’ll pay for—” Larry drew in a sharp breath and launched into a bout of violent coughing. Joel closed his eyes, hoping the bastard would die on the spot. “You… make me hunt for you in here, boy, and… swear to God… you’ll join your mother.”

The heavy footfalls of Larry’s work boots drew near until a shadow passed along the thin band of stark white light beneath the tambour door, inches from boy and dog. The shadow halted. Joel hugged Rusty close and counted the seconds by the throbbing in his temples. Keep walking… Please, keep walking.

Finally, the shadow disappeared. Joel allowed nearly a full minute to pass before risking a sigh. His relief was short-lived. With a yelp, Rusty shoved his snout into the narrow gap. The flexible door creaked and groaned against the pressure.

Somewhere in the garage, boot soles scraped against concrete. “You think you’re so smart.”

A thundercrack rocked the desk. Rusty howled and thrashed in the compartment. It had been a warning shot. There was no sense hiding any longer. Joel imagined himself lying in a pool of his own blood before the night was over. But maybe Rusty can get away. Reaching over the terrified dog, Joel slipped his fingers under the door and lifted it slowly, expecting to be greeted by the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun.

As Rusty skittered off the desk to the floor, Joel shielded his eyes and ravenously inhaled the cool, fresh air. When his vision adjusted, there was no shotgun in his face. No Uncle Larry. No garage.

Instead, Joel gazed at a distant horizon dominated by the undulating waves of a vast sea that sparkled beneath the hazy glow of a setting sun. All of this was revealed through three enormous arched windows that spanned floor to ceiling directly across the room.

Joel unfolded himself from the compartment and sat on the edge of the desk, taking in the strange surroundings. Nearly every inch of wall space was consumed by bookcases fully stocked with hardcovers and paperbacks. To his left, Rusty had curled up on one of two high-backed chairs facing a blazing brick fireplace. Joel nearly ordered him off but thought better of it. If he’s comfortable there, he’ll stay out of trouble. Off to his right, a softly ticking grandfather clock stood between two mahogany wood doors that led to parts unknown.

Yet it was the view beyond the windows that captivated Joel. As he approached them, he realized that he was on the second floor of—wherever this was—and that the ocean lay far below a grassy plateau mottled with trees and teeming with wild animals of every variety. Sprightly primates scaled branches with graceful aplomb while giraffes leisurely gnawed on tree tops. Below them, a group of pandas rolled and frolicked among scurrying foxes and stolid rhinos as a family of elephants lumbered by. Among this perplexing menagerie, there stood no fences or barricades of any kind.

“What is this place?” Joel muttered.

“An animal sanctuary, of course.”

Joel whirled at the unfamiliar voice, his gaze darting around the room until he noticed the steady puffs of smoke rising from the closest of the two high-backed chairs. From his vantage point, it was impossible to see the occupant but rather than approach the stranger, Joel kept his distance. He hurried across the room to the other chair where Rusty remained firmly entrenched. At the sight of Joel, the recumbent beagle’s brown and white tail tapped a gleeful tattoo against the upholstered seat.

“Man’s best friend.” Joel folded his arms. “You could’ve warned me someone else was here.” He motioned for the dog to move. “Let’s go, off the furniture.”

“He seems content where he is.” In the other chair, a middle-aged man leaned forward and removed a curled ebony pipe from beneath an enormous handlebar mustache, made even more striking by the fact that there was no other hair on his head. “No need for apprehension, young man. You’re safe here. This is a sanctuary of life. Take a cue from your canine and relax. I’m Finley, the caretaker, at your service.”

Joel sat on the arm of the chair, but his arms remained folded across his chest. “I’m Joel. This is Rusty.”

“Welcome to my home.”

“You live here?”

Finley nodded. “Along with my wife and innumerable creatures of land, sea, and air.”

“How large is this sanctuary?”

“As large as it needs to be.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’d have to see it for yourself.”

“I’m not even sure how we got here.”

Finley waved a pipe toward the desk behind them. “You crawled out of my roll top. That’s a first, even for this place. The question is, how did you get in there?”

“When we climbed in, the desk was in my uncle’s garage. We were hiding from him.”

“Hiding from your uncle? Why?”

“He was trying to kill us.” Joel lowered his gaze. “He’s an angry drunk and I’m usually his punching bag, but this time, he had a gun.”

Finley took a long draw from his pipe. “Where are your parents?”

“My father walked out when I was six. My mother died of cancer about a year ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Whatever.”

Finley rose from his chair and straightened the hem of his maroon turtleneck over the top of his jeans. He walked to the window and gazed out at the plateau. “So, you saved not only yourself, but your dog as well.”

Joel knelt down in front of Rusty. “What else would I do? He’s the only friend I have.”

“What else indeed.” Finley grinned. “How old are you, if I may ask?”

“Fifteen.”

“Going on thirty, but then I suppose that’s to be expected given your circumstances.” Finley glanced at the grandfather clock. “Would you like a tour of the sanctuary before it gets dark?”

“Is it safe to bring Rusty?”

“Of course. There’s no aggression among our animals. Come along.”

As Finley led the way toward the door, Joel pointed to several framed degrees and certificates on the wall above the desk. “You’re a veterinarian.”

“I was. Been retired for some time. This place is my life now… in a manner of speaking.”

“I’d like to work with animals someday.”

Finley merely smiled and took another draw from his pipe.

***

“Rusty, stay close.” Standing at the edge of the plateau, Joel marveled as the sun began melting into the horizon, painting clouds and sea alike in a deep, rippling orange. To a city boy who had rarely seen an open space larger than an empty parking lot, it might as well have been the edge of the world. “I’ve never been to the ocean before, and I’ve never seen most of the animals here, except on TV.”

During their tour, Finley had shown Joel dozens of species and habitats, from placid snow monkeys soaking in steaming hot springs to mountain goats scaling sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high. Now, as squawking seagulls circled and dropped out of sight, Joel peered down at a beach covered with marine life. Curious seals waddled and bounced between barking sea lions and whistling walruses while the fins of porpoises, sharks, and orcas occasionally surfaced beyond the shoreline.

Joel turned to Finley standing far off to his left. “How did you manage to get all these animals here?” “Oh, I did nothing. They all end up here eventually. Some by air, others by water,” Finley pointed his pipe toward the sky far off to the right, “and the rest take a more fabled route.” Joel followed his gaze to a long, shallow arch that extended from a low-hanging cloud near the horizon to a point somewhere behind a dense tree line on the far side of the plateau. How did I miss that? Shielding his eyes against the ocean’s glare revealed that the arch was a bridge across which thousands of animals of every size and shape marched toward the sanctuary grounds. So focused was Joel on the approaching stampede, that it took him a moment longer to notice the various colors of the bridge. “Is that…?”

Finley nodded. “Welcome to the sanctuary at the end of the rainbow bridge.”

“No, but… that means you’re… that Rusty and I…” Joel closed his eyes and dropped to his knees. That wasn’t a warning shot. “Oh, God, no.” When he opened his eyes again, Rusty stood before him. With a whimper, the dog cocked his head to one side.

“I’m sorry.” Joel leaned forward, resting his head against Rusty’s. “I was trying to save you. I’m so sorry.”

Finley lowered himself to the ground beside boy and dog. “Listen to me, Joel. You’re both going to be fine.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because this is paradise. You and Rusty will never again know pain, abuse, or fear—only peace and happiness. Besides, you said you wanted to work with animals. Now’s your chance.”

“To do what?” Joel sat back and wiped his eyes. Rusty stretched out beside him.

“Well, the wild ones need little attention from us,” Finley waved his pipe toward the rainbow bridge, “but the others that cross over are house pets, like Rusty, and the purpose of the sanctuary is to reunite them with their human companions when the time comes. That’s what my wife and I do as caretakers.”

“Yeah, but why me? Why did I end up here?”

Finley shrugged. “You were chosen, as my wife and I were. You risked your life to save Rusty. Regardless of the outcome, I believe it was that unconditional love that brought you to us. Besides, we could use the help and there’s plenty of room in the house. What do you say?”

Joel thought for a moment. “I think I’ll take a cue from my canine.” He patted the beagle’s side. “What do you say, boy? Think you’d be happy here for eternity?”

Rusty’s tail thumped the ground as he let out an eager yap.

“Yeah, me too.” He looked at Finley. “One condition. Can I see my mother again?”

“As I said,” the caretaker gazed beyond Joel, “reunions are our specialty.”

Joel glanced over his shoulder at the woman strolling toward them across the plateau. “Finley,” his voice cracked, “we got a deal.”






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