Chapter One

Nora would forever mistrust the phrase, "It'll be fun."

"We'll take a long weekend, just you and Mama, and some cute dogs," Mama said when she introduced the shelter dog relocation idea three weeks earlier. Mama loved dogs almost as much as she loved Nora, and volunteered at the Second Chances shelter on weekends. "How's that sound? I think it'll be fun."

Nora remembered shrugging. She liked dogs, of course, and ever since she'd started working at the cell phone place she'd spent less and less time visiting Mama, though she lived only a few miles down the road. It was a no-brainer, really. See Mama, see the world, get the hell away from boring old life for a while... "I'll see if I can get the time off. I can't make any promises, Mama," she quickly added, to temper her mother's enthusiastic hug. "We've been swamped lately and I'm still the new girl and you know all the kids going off to college have to get a new cell phone on Mama and Daddy's dime so-"

Mama waved away her protests, smiling wide. "I'm sure you can talk someone into covering for you, just for a few days. Just tell 'em it's for a good cause!"

Nora did as Mama said, and she got the time off.

Truth be told, she had been looking forward to three uninterrupted days with her mother. For years they were all they had, bouncing from motel to hotel and then to different crappy apartments as Mama took her guitar on the road after working 8 to 4 cleaning houses. By the time Nora turned fourteen, though, Mama added George to the family, and settled down in a little house on the Georgia coast. Fast forward another twelve years, and they lived mostly separate lives. Mama still took her guitar on the road, playing in bars and coffee shops a few nights a week, while Nora took on whatever jobs she could to afford the rent for the apartment she shared with her friend Alice. She called her mother every night, but it wasn't the same.

So Nora pulled up to the squat white beach house, parked next to George's old red truck, and spun her keys with excitement as she approached the front door on day one of their trip. She could still hear the ocean waves across the street in the peaceful early hours of the morning, and the birds chirping in the trees made her believe she was in for a great weekend.

Mama opened the door in her pajamas, with her grey-and-black hair braided away from her face and her brown skin a couple shades ashier than normal.

"You look like shit," Nora observed, tucking the keys into her pocket. She might have imagined the sun going behind a cloud at that precise moment but the front porch and the outlook for her weekend felt a hell of a lot colder at this revelation.

"Think we ate bad shrimp last night," Mama moaned. "Don't ever surf and turf at that new restaurant on the beach... George and I have been in and out of the bathroom since two in the morning. I'm afraid I won't be good company this weekend, Nora honey."

Nora's step-dad poked his head out of the bathroom then, pale-faced and queasy, and waved.

Nora grimaced and waved back. "So have you called the shelter yet? Do they know they need to find another driver or-"

"Oh no, they'd never be able to find someone now," Mama despaired into her hands. "I didn't even think of that and it's such short notice..." Mama's dark eyes bored holes into hers as one of her five dogs, Tipsy, pawed at Nora's leg.

"Fine," Nora sighed, scratching the mutt behind his fluffy ears. "I'll still do it. Can't let the dogs down, right?"

Mama beamed at her. "That's wonderful. You should get on, then. Shelter's got you on a tight schedule, I think."

Nora was well aware. Even in ideal conditions, the round trip would take up most of the next three days, especially now that she wouldn't have help along the way or anyone to take over driving. "Are you sure you don't need anything? You or George...?" she asked, raising her voice a little at the end so he could hear her from the bathroom, but Mama just shook her head, chivvying Nora back to her car.

"Take care of yourself! And don't forget to call me... and send pictures! I'm sure it'll be fun, even without me!"

"The things I do for you, Mama," Nora muttered as she pulled out of the driveway.

Thus Nora drove off to the shelter alone and traded in her beat up car for a big white van with Second Chances Pet Taxi emblazoned on the side in cheerful green paint. Her fares were all dogs, all under thirty pounds. Their crates were stacked up two high, secured to the sides of the van with a foot and a half aisle between them, and when she got in and looked over her shoulder, fifteen pairs of eyes stared back.

"I hope none of you wanted to pick the station 'cause it looks like it's just me at the wheel today," she told them. "And I'm supposed to have fun somehow, so feel free to sing along."

The provided map guided Nora away from the coast, from Savannah to Wheeling, West Virginia. With ten hours of open road between home and her first overnight, Nora filled her driving time with tone deaf renditions of whatever songs she could get on the van's crackling radio. It alternated between country and classic rock, mingled with the whimpers and yaps of confused mutts.

She stopped every couple hours to rest and walk each of the dogs around truck stop dog runs; the first stop took the longest as she had to learn which groups of three she could trust to walk together and not snap at each other or tangle her in the leads. By the last rest area, just over the West Virginia state line, she was exhausted but a dog walking professional.

"Just think," she said to her furry cargo as they merged back onto the interstate. "Soon someone will take you home and you'll get to go for long walks and chase sticks or chew shoes all day and at night you'll get your belly scratched and fall asleep like royalty on someone's waterbed."

An Italian greyhound named Khan whimpered and shivered in his crate.

"Or it could be a regular bed, Khan. I'm sure you'll enjoy it either way," she assured him. "I know I'd enjoy a bed right now," she muttered.

Taillights mesmerized like beacons in the night by the time she arrived at her first drop off. Six dogs transferred over at that stop, and two lovely volunteers helped her exercise, feed, and water the remaining nine dogs for the night. They slept in shared runs in the back of the shelter, while Nora pulled out a pillow and blanket and sprawled out in the van.

Before she drifted off to much needed sleep, she gave Mama a call.

"We're feeling much better now, Nora honey," Mama insisted, though she sounded as tired as Nora felt. "The exciting bits seem to be over and now it's just time for a lot of rest, you know?"

Nora nodded before she remembered she was on her cell phone. "That's my plan now too."

They talked a few more minutes but neither had the adequate level of alertness to sustain a conversation, and Nora woke an hour later with her phone still in her hand. Mama hung up half an hour earlier; Nora hoped she hadn't started snoring.

Morning arrived wet and grey. Drizzle turned the load-up soggy and miserable, and Nora spent the rest of the day smelling wet dog. From Wheeling to Indianapolis, where she dropped off three dogs in pouring rain, and then north to Chicago where four more departed, rain clouds lingered like helicopter parents at a playground. Her windshield wipers had a good workout that day as she continued into Wisconsin with the last two dogs.

With less yappy cargo, Nora let the fretful little Khan sit with her for the next two hours. He quieted as soon as he escaped his crate, and perched dainty as a cat on her lap. Occasionally he'd yip at a passing car or turn and lick her chin when she talked to him, but mostly he studied the window like a guard on duty as she watched the road over his long snout.

Another summer night fell early and ominous over the highways of rural Wisconsin. It was only about 8 when she got to the shelter, but the looming clouds made the evening darker.

When Nora parked in front of her last stop, Khan's tail wagged as if he knew he was that much closer to his forever home. A woman waded through a sea of similarly wagging tails in a run at the side of the building and greeted Nora.

"No problems, I hope?" she asked, as she put a lead on the poodle mix in the bottom right crate.

Nora shook her head. "Nothing of note. Rain all across the midwest but these two were quiet most of the way."

The woman nodded thoughtfully as Nora handed over the intake files she had for the remaining two dogs and clipped on Khan's lead for the last time. "That's not like to change anytime soon. We've got severe thunderstorm warnings 'til two in the morning, so if you need a place to stay, there's a bed in back; we keep it in case we get snowed in in winter but no one'll fight you for it in July."

Nora yawned, more tired than she'd thought. The monotony of driving aside, she'd spent the last two days shuffling distressed dogs by herself and looked forward to some peace and quiet. "I might crash in your parking lot, if that's okay with you. I'm looking to get some dinner first, but then I'd just park somewhere out of the way and sleep in the van."

The woman agreed, and once their official duties passed, Nora set out in search of a shower and a meal that didn't come out of a cellophane wrapper. She found the former by stopping at a local swimming pool that was miraculously still open and had full bathroom facilities. The latter took a little more doing. By that point it was about 10:30 at night, and it seemed all the stores in this podunk town had closed at 10.

"Unbelievable," Nora muttered as she passed another diner turning its lights off for the night. "Who closes up shop this early? Is the whole damn town closed?" Her complaints echoed unanswered in the empty van.

Compounding her troubles, the impending storm arrived right about the time she got out of the shower, so her windshield wipers worked overtime to clear the view. Defeated by the hour, Nora stopped at a gas station and got a sandwich (which had cellophane but also lettuce so that evened out in her mind) and a banana, but didn't dare eat them yet. She'd rather go hungry for ten more minutes than risk getting lost in a downpour in Middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin.

She drove back on a shallow river by that point; it wasn't much water, perhaps a half inch or so, but rain covered every bit of the road. Heavy drops plink-plonked on the metal roof. Visibility dropped to a few meters and then to less than that. Nora stubbornly pushed on; she knew she was only a few miles from the shelter, dinnertime, and gloriously uninterrupted sleep, and all that stood between her and those wonderful things was a little rain, thunder, lightn-

A large figure leapt toward the road.

Nora slammed on the brakes.

Eyes met hers for a fraction of a second. Big, yellow eyes, that seemed to glow. The thing stared at her, whatever it was, as it bounded across the road. Mist huffed from its snout as it landed inches from her left mirror, and bolted into the high grass on the other side of the road.

She hydroplaned as a second creature ran after it. Thud.

The van slid to a stop on the shoulder and Nora gaped out at the storm.

Her brain struggled to catch up with what had just happened. That first thing? What was that?! It was big and fast and then that second-

The second thing.

Nora fumbled with her seat belt and grabbed the emergency flashlight out of the first aid kit under the passenger seat. That second thing, it wasn't as big as the first and she definitely hit something. It could've been a child or a short person or a cow... but probably not a cow, but that wasn't the point! She hit something and it might be dying in the rain right that moment and-

Nora's heart pounded as she threw open the door and ran out into the storm.