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Copyright © 2016 by Adrienne Irene Oaks
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organisations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
“If you love something, set it free.” Erin spoke the words so quietly that the low-voiced phrase was little more than a whisper, hardly audible above the constant sounds of breaking waves and a brisk evening breeze.
“Okay boy, you know I love you, so here’s your chance to run free.”
Despite giving permission, she hesitated. Unsure she was doing the right thing. On this, their second visit to the beach, the conditions were ideal. Last time there had been no possibility of running -the waves had been surging and the high-tide line had been littered with the pale corpses of stinging blue bottles.
On seeing that nature had provided a perfectly valid reason for not going through with her plan, she had felt equal parts relief and disappointment. All the same, she’d kept him on-lead and close by her side as they’d negotiated a short slalom in the soft sands between water and dunes, before returning the way they’d come.
They had only ventured down the steeply-stepped access path this evening because she’d checked beforehand and seen from the promontory that the tide was at low ebb, exposing a wide stretch of pristine packed sand. Despite the awkwardly spaced steps, her big black boy had scrambled down eagerly and now they were here on the shore she could hardly tell him that she’d changed her mind.
However much she might want to.
“Go on then, run fast you lazy fucker.” This order was hissed with sibilant venom, as collar and lead were briskly removed from the muzzled black dog wearing the number six vest. He was shoved unceremoniously towards the confines of the narrow starting box like so much meat into a grinder when he proved recalcitrant. “You’d better place this time, or it’s a one-way ticket to donate blood for you my boy,” she added, rapping knuckles on the outside of the box.
[_ To those close enough to hear, the words, barely audible above the stereophonic effects of excited crowd and booming public address speakers, were at odds with the cheery smile plastered on the face of his handler. She, however, knew full-well that cameras were recording the start and her smile was all for the benefit of the news feed. Just as well, she thought, that they couldn’t hear what she had said. The industry had taken a hit, of late, from a spate of bad news headlines and exposé documentaries full of damning videos that had hurt trainers and tracks alike, resulting in thin crowds and diminished profits. But not tonight. A new track and the crowds were back in droves. Good thing the punter’s memories were short. It was heartening -and if her boy placed well in this race she’d make a killing. She backed away from the box with fingers crossed for a great outcome. _]
Erin couldn’t hide the nervous tremor. Didn’t try. Even now, down the steps and standing on the firm sand, her anxieties were in danger of taking over. If not for the sheer excited anticipation of the animal at her side, the courage she needed to do this would have dissipated like sea-spray being blown away in the gusting wind. Still, she uttered a brief breathless prayer that was as much a plea to the large black dog by her side as an appeal to any heavenly body as she reluctantly bent to unclip the lead, “Remember to come back to me boy.”
[_Another seven hounds stuffed into the starting boxes alongside number six, with little ceremony and varying degrees of care. What did it matter? -these dogs hardly qualified as best of breed: whelped in numbers that allowed for the wastage of thousands, there were always more waiting in the wings to take their place should they fail. _]
Finally giving in to incessant nagging from a friend, Erin had signed up to foster. Worried that she knew next-to-nothing about the breed, she had researched online, daunted when she’d read stories of animals that had been permitted off-leash, only to run away when least expected. The heart-wrenching tales of lives ended in sadly tragic outcomes had torn at her heart-strings and fired her latent fears, justifying her and Tyson staying within the confines of fenced parks for most of the past year. Ty had seemed happy enough with the restricted space and they’d survived this limitation over the warming months of spring, a long, hot endless summer and an overly-warm autumn, until a winter’s weekend break on the southern coast had presented this golden stretch of uninhabited sand. Embraced by steep dunes to their right and the turning tide to their left …with an enviably clear run all the way to rocks that book-ended the gently curving length of the beach.
Couldn’t be more perfect.
Still, aware that beyond the steep dunes were vast expanses of brush and dense undergrowth that could hide a lost, injured or snake-bitten dog from searcher’s eyes, Erin hesitated.
She knew if she waited much longer, she’d loose her nerve. Her panicky gut heaved, threatening to disgorge its contents.
Sensing she was about to go back on her resolve, Ty tugged harder at the lead. Restlessly dancing in his desperation to run free as if to say, “But you promised!”
Coiled muscles straining with anticipation. So much tension on the lead and collar she still held securely, she could hear him struggling to breathe as she fought her reluctance to let go. Erin became aware that her teeth were gnawing at her lower lip in an habitual show of worry. Having him around had helped her master her anxiety-attacks. How much more would losing him bring them all flooding back?
But there was no turning back now. If not now … when?
She made up her mind. They were under starter’s orders.
Under starter’s orders. A whine from the white bitch in number three and a scrabble of nails as she struggled in the claustrophobic confines of the box. A brief second of expectant hush, then the gate flipped upwards, ejecting the contents of the boxes.
“They’re racing!” The announcer pronounced jubilantly.
And They’re Racing!
Erin looked down, realising that, yes, she had unclipped the lead but her firmly clenched fingers still held tightly to the collar. False start -He was going nowhere.
Drawing a deep calming breath. Fighting the fear. “Be safe.” She closed her eyes, speaking the words as an addendum to her earlier prayer as she forced open her tight grip.
Release was all the blessing he required. He shot away like a missile from a cannon, gone twenty, fifty, a hundred metres, in the blink of an eye. Watching helplessly, nervous hands now tugging her wind-blown hair back from her eyes, Erin was torn between awe, admiration for his speed and concern that he might refuse to stop.
No such fears for him. Quicksilver smooth, fast as lightning, he settled into that running style that had him on the shortlist of the speediest animals on the planet -his liquid action mimicking that of the cheetah: all feet leaving the ground at maximum stretch and minimum curl. His paws alternating between being tucked close to his belly or flung outwards to their fullest extent. The sheer fluid quality to his running took her breath clear away.
Out of the gates, fast and furious, the racers were bunched together so tight it was near-impossible to discern the identifying numbers on the jackets they wore. No sooner had the race started than the volume of the crowd rose to a screaming crescendo, none more vocal than the young couple up on the rails who had pushed themselves to the forefront of the throng.
Theirs was a vested interest. Owners of number four, a race-savvy brindle male, they had bet a considerable wager on their own dog, aided by insider knowledge that he was more than the race favourite and hoping to score a big win for a deposit on a house they coveted in coastal Mandurah. The only sure bets in dog racing were those engineered in the days and hours before a meet commenced. Combined with the substantial purse up for grabs in prize winnings at this meet, the two were quietly confident they would have a sizable down-payment before the night was done. As the race progressed, they continued to cheer.
Erin could could feel the prick of tears behind her eyelids. It never failed to affect her emotions when she witnessed him running -albeit, until this moment, within the tight space of her small suburban backyard or the limits of the fenced dog park- but here he was at his sublime best, taking full advantage of the clear expanse of empty sand. Whereas in the yard or the park there were always fences or obstacles in his path slowing him down, here on this deserted beach there were no obstructions. He was gone two hundred metres in what seemed like a single heartbeat.
Heart in her mouth but wanting to miss none of the spectacle, -eyes never leaving his running form, she rummaged in her jacket pocket for a hair tie- hastily fastening her wayward locks off her face.
[_Multiple b inoculars focused on the runners, though less concerned with style and more with speed -specifically, which of the eight would win? Perhaps one or two of the crowd might pause for a millisecond to reflect on the grace of the racing hounds, but the vast majority were more interested in a return on their evening’s investment. _]
“[_A great night out. Affordable entertainment for the whole family,” bellowed the track official, all the while smiling affably into the lens of the local news camera. “A brand new facility, built here in the heart of Perth, for the enjoyment of all. It’s so exciting. The races are over quickly and then it’s on to the next, so there’s no waiting around. Harmless fun,…” standing trackside, he spread his arms, indicating the race in progress, “…and everyone knows, greyhounds just love to run. Couldn’t do otherwise. They’re bred for it after all. You just can’t stop them -it’s in their DNA.” _]
Following his lead, the camera-operator panned towards the track.
Until this moment Erin had been questioning if it was all worth the risk? After all, he was a well-cared-for dog and apart from the two minutes a day when he acted like he thought he was Captain Zoom he was a committed couch-potato. His morning naps regularly segued into afternoon siestas that overflowed into the evening’s sleep. What did it matter if he never got to run without the restrictions of fence or lead? He was her miracle-cure and she had all but convinced herself that it was simply a construct of her own overactive imagination that he needed more freedom.
Driving to the beach today, she’d been debating whether to stay on the safe side, -keep him on the lead and jog alongside. Not that sprinting was her thing or that she imagined she was any kind of athlete. That’s why she loved having a dog that was mostly content with a fifteen-minute stroll to her local café and back home each morning. Short and a little plump, she was well aware that she was not built for speed, but even if she had been able to run like Usain Bolt or her boy’s namesake, Tyson Gay, it wouldn’t have made any difference. He could easily outclass them all without so much as bothering to shift out of second gear.
[_ As they approached the final bend, it looked as if number four, as prearranged, would outclass his competitors. The EPO that had been administered in the weeks before the race, -the performance-enhancing drug that had Lance Armstrong forfeiting seven Tour de France medals- was giving a veteran runner the race-day advantage of a higher red blood cell count and the edge required for an almost-certain victory. With odds like that, his owners were confident of a win. _]
[_ But unknown to the cohort of trainers, there was a wildcard in the pack. A mix-up had occurred, accidental or intentional, and number three, the zippy-but-novice little white bitch, embarking on her maiden race, had also been administered a performance-enhancing drug -in the form of a surreptitious pre-race swipe of cocaine across her gums as she had been led to the track. _]
“C’mon four! Faster! Faster! Get going! Run!” screamed the punters.
“Looks like it’s going to be a close finish,” said the official, beaming. “I told you it was exciting stuff. People love it!” His expression couldn’t have been more smugly self-satisfied.
“C’mon Ty. S low down boy. Turn, turn,” Erin exhorted, only now thinking of the possibilities of rabbits hiding up in those dunes she had previously thought were a safe barricade. If he spotted one and took chase after it she might never see him alive again. And sobering thought, -the rabbits and the roos were all very well, but there were other, more potentially deadly wildlife lurking in these dunes as well.
“If it doesn’t return, it was never yours.” The final line of that saying. Try as she might she couldn’t stop the words running through her head on an endless repetitive loop.
How much further could he go? Erin could feel the agitation in her stomach starting to unfurl once more. Fear and anxiety were her constant enemies. She had struggled with overcoming them all her life …from being an apprehensive and over-anxious child, she had grown into an adult who spent much of her time and efforts masking her insecurities, eventually becoming reliant on medication to maintain a semblance of health.
Tyson had changed that. A mere two months after fostering him, she had been able to wean herself off the meds and hadn’t needed them since. All the more reason that she referred to him as her ‘miracle-cure’.
Eyes, cameras, smartphones ..so many recording devices all focused on the track.
When it happened it was over so quickly there was no time to react. Staring through the lens, the camera-operator had a close-up view of what he could only later describe as carnage. He’d thought he was hardened to what life had to offer but, a dog-lover himself, the ensuing moments saw him promptly losing his dinner in the manicured grass at his feet.
He did however, manage to hold it together long enough to film the entire debacle.
Unusually, the pack had stayed tightly bunched coming into the final straight. It was here, directly in front of the stands and the screaming throng of the crowd that number three, young, inexperienced and high on the cocaine, made a fatal error. Hyped to the gunwales on a stimulant that made her unhesitatingly determined to do her utmost to forge her way to the front of the pack, three found a gap between four and the inside rail. This was the moment when lack of race experience proved her undoing. Hedging into the too-narrow space, she clipped the hindquarters of the brindle dog in front, setting four off-balance and sending him spinning. At speeds over sixty kilometres per hour they both went down hard, he hurtling end over end in multiple cart-wheels that resulted in the whip-like cracking sound of a severed spine. The ear-splitting scream that rent the air as he crashed onto the hard track would be a sound many race-goers would find difficult to forget.
Running so close-together, with no time to manoeuvre, the following dogs had no chance at all of avoiding these two, resulting in a melee of broken bones and internal injuries. The resultant pile-up added a chorus of pitiful whines from the injured dogs to that already heard.
All excepting the black dog. Number six. He, doped on painkillers rather than stimulants in hopes of masking a recurring paw injury, was trailing the pack just enough to avoid the fracas. It was a momentary lapse that undoubtedly saved his life that evening on the track but ultimately signalled the end of his racing ‘career’. Stumbling on another few steps, before realising that he was running solo, he turned and trotted back to his fallen brethren, as if to encourage them to run on. This last action proved to be his swan song.
“Useless piece of dumb shit,” his trainer pronounced. “Can’t even win when there’s no competition.” Shaking her head in disgust, she had a brief word with the course vet and by meet-end six’s fate was sealed. Sold for a pittance to lie quietly while needles were inserted, he was bled dry, his blood sold for the surgical needs of other more fortunate dogs before his unwanted carcass was discarded like a dry husk.
Four might have been the only dog to die on the track that evening but the post-race fallout saw the untimely demise of another three racers within hours. Seven, tenderly carried off-track with potentially recoverable injuries, never made it home, euthanized at his owner’s request by the on-track vet. Two, although making it back to kennels, was assessed the following morning and marked across the forehead with a large white ‘E’. Her charred body, identifiable only by the distinctive ear tattoos, was one of many remains an investigative news crew recorded in yet another damning documentary when accompanying the RSPCA to check on her sudden disappearance.
It was, however, the pitiful sight of number three, hobbling away from the mass of fallen bodies with a badly injured rear leg, that caught the crowd and the wider public’s attention. The heart-wrenching sight of the little white bitch, dragging her hind leg and stumbling along the track, still focused on attaining the winning post was captured on many of the spectators’ phones and cameras, not to mention the News footage going out as a live feed to the wider Network. The racing industry’s attempt to make this particular hound into a sort of poster-child for caring post-race recovery might have worked, had not the news crew gone in hot pursuit of the stories of the other dogs in the race.
[_ Of the eight that began the race, number five was the sole survivor, rehomed by a local rescue group. A big black dog, -a common enough colour amongst racing hounds and not one that was popular with potential adopters-, his broken hind toe had healed well enough to run, but he would never race competitively again. _]
Enough of this waiting for Ty to stop and turn back. Erin started in pursuit after him, uncaring that her running pace was nothing compared to Ty’s, she was already badly out of breath, when, barely slowing, he turned in a way that would have done a barrel-racer proud and began dashing back up the beach towards her.
“Oh -Thank God, Ty,” she heaved breathlessly, hands on knees as she fought to regain air into her tortured lungs.
In no time at all, he was back, dashing circles around her, scurrying this way and that, alternating between play-bowing and rearing on his hind legs, expressing his profound delight at being granted the freedom of the beach with a few uncharacteristic barks.
“Get down boy,’ she ordered laughingly, when rearing up, he smeared wet, sandy paw prints all over her chest.
[_ The track crew scurried to erect a barrier around the fallen dogs but the damage was done and couldn’t be invalidated by any slick PR campaign. The poignant shot of that little bitch shot around the globe and with it the public finally chose to become fully aware of the realities of a sport that had been an openly kept secret. You Tube videos of the race went viral and public opinion escalated in response. Petition after petition was signed, garnering enormous online support. Large protests took place outside the tracks and a constant barrage of exposés and news items resulted in the demise of the Australian greyhound racing industry -finally going the same way as its predecessors in Europe and North America. The backlash resulted in punters staying away from the races in droves and the starvation of funds from cancelled government subsidies and a lack of betting forced the closure of track after track, including Perth’s newest. _]
As part of the industry fallout, there was a flood of greyhounds awaiting to be fostered and adopted.
And the Winner is…
She had never intended to adopt a dog. Particularly not a large, injured and easily frightened fellow that cringed away every time she inadvertently raised a hand. Then her nagging friend had suggested fostering and somehow it had transpired, in the months of his recovery, that they had fallen in love with one another. So that afterwards, when it came time to present Tyson to permanent carers, she had baulked and opted to keep him herself. Who knew that having him around would change them both so profoundly? Unknowingly, they had gifted one another with increased self-confidence and a lessening of their fears.
She thought that she was merely rescuing a dog that would be otherwise put down but it had been win-win for them both -each learning to co-exist with anxiety in a way that was less crippling for them both.
But right now, unconcerned of deeper issues, the poster-child for the quintessentially happy, relaxed and much-loved, ex-racing greyhound lay at her feet, panting gently from the after-effects of his mad run. Erin lowered herself to the sand and sat, wrapping an arm around her black dog as they gazed out to sea.
“If it comes back, it’s yours.”
“Your mine, Ty. I’m yours. That’s good enough for me.” As if in agreement, he reached up and licked her face.
They stayed on the beach, watching the sun slowly sink into the waves.
About the Author:
Irene Davidson is the nom de plume of Adrienne Oaks.
Growing up in the far south of New Zealand, Adrienne rapidly came to the conclusion that her native home was a long way from anywhere and unless she wanted to spend all her holidays on Stewart Island (a lovely but tiny island situated even further south than where she grew up) she’d need to get used to flying.
With this in mind, she jetted off to high school in Tennessee, university in Palmerston North (that’s in New Zealand’s North Island), work in London and holidays in France, unaware that she was gathering material for writing as she went.
Following a degree in biology, Adrienne studied post-grad in Landscape Architecture before producing two beautiful babies; both of whom are now well on their way to being grown-ups.
Having very recently relocated once more, Adrienne currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with Tim and a large adopted (black, Australian ) greyhound that lies around while she writes.
Other titles by Irene Davidson
Collecting Thoughts, -free download from Shakespir
Flowers in the Morning, (Book 1 in the White Briars series), free download from Shakespir
The Waiting Place, (short story), free download from Shakespir
Dry Spell, (short story), free download from Shakespir
The Flower Girl (short story), free download from Shakespir
Little Dragon Learns to Fly -a children’s picture book
Connect with Irene Davidson
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Erin stands on the beach, deliberating whether to allow her precious rescued greyhound to have his first solo run. She is torn between the desire to give him the freedom he deserves and her own anxieties. Having suffered from crippling depression, she regards the dog as her life-line to a normal existence and is loathe to let him go in case he doesn't return. A second inter-linking strand in this short-story revolves around the outcome of the inaugural race at a newly-opened greyhound racetrack.