Beginnings: Toby

“Your driving’s getting better,” Sweetie said, holding on tightly to the handle on the roof of the car, above the passenger side door.

“Really?” Nik asked, flashing a grin and a look in Sweetie’s direction. “You think stho?”

In the few seconds that Nik took his eyes off the road, Sweetie’s level of agitation rose to a startling degree. The car had swerved a little to the right, over the solid yellow line, and scraped briefly against the gravel shoulder. Sweetie shifted around in his seat and tightened his grip to the handle, grabbing hold of the side of his seat with his other hand, as well. “Uh, yeah,” he said, looking straight ahead and lying through his teeth. “Just… great. NIK!” Sweetie sat up straight and yelled. So spooked by the shout, Nik slammed his foot down on the break well before Sweetie yelled “STOP!”

The car screeched to a halt on the otherwise seemingly deserted road. “What?” Nik paused, looking around. Then, more anxious, “Sweetie, what?”

“I thought I saw…” Sweetie trailed off. “Yeah,” he said with some certainty. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt. “I did.” He unlocked his car door and pulled the latch to open it. From inside the car, Nik watched the man. The two headlights sent two beams straight out into the darkness. Trees lined the street on both sides, but there were no streetlights.  

Sweetie walked almost out of sight. Then he returned, walking more slowly under the weight of the heavy load he was carrying. “What?!” Nik turned on the blinking hazard lights and got out of the car as well.

Almost staggering under the weight of it, Sweetie held a black dog in his arms. “I don’t think he’s hurt,” Sweetie told Nik, as Nik moved in to help inspect the dog. “But he seemed pretty scared. He was frozen right off the road up ahead and wagged his tail when I approached.”

“Think he’sth rabid?” Nik asked.

Sweetie shook his head. “I think he’s lost and needs some help.”

Nik reached out and let the dog sniff his hand. Then he gently stroked the dog’s head, and its tail began swinging back and forth almost automatically. “I know how he feelsth.”

There was nothing about it to discuss. Sweetie walked over to the car and Nik held one of the doors open. The dog jumped right into the back seat and stretched out, resting his head on his front paws. If he was making himself at home already, just in the car, Sweetie was really curious to see how it would go once they got the dog back to the house. Assuming they made it there in once piece. “I’m driving the rest of the way,” Sweetie declared, slipping past Nik and stealing the driver’s seat. They keys were still in the ignition, and he turned them to start the car back up. It gave an uncertain sputter first before starting, and Sweetie was thankful not to be stuck out here on the road in the middle of the night the way the dog had been. Poor thing.

Nik turned in his seat to look back at the dog. “Put your seatbelt on,” Sweetie said automatically.

“Why? Are you planning on getting into an accident, Mr. Perfect Driver?” He glanced over at the dials on the dashboard. “You’re going absurdly slowly.”

Six miles under the speed limit wasn’t absurd, according to Sweetie, especially when they’d almost hit a dog minutes earlier. “That’s right, an accident. More accurately, I’m going slowly because I’m looking for the right, fat tree to crash into. Now if you put on your seatbelt, maybe I’ll reconsider.”

Nik grumbled but stretched the shoulder belt over his front and clicked it into place. He turned to look back again, though he couldn’t turn as freely as before. Nik looked back at the dog, thinking silently. “You don’t think he’sth a Cujo, do you?” he asked finally.

Sweetie snorted. “Now that’s absurd.”

“Stheriousthly, though,” Nik went on. “Think about the creepinessth factor. Dark, destherted sthtretch of road. A stheemingly peactheful pooch and two unsthusthpecting friendsth who take him into their car. I can totally sthee him sthnapping and devouring usth when we leastht exthpect it.”

“You have a vivid but incredibly sick imagination, my dear friend.” Sweetie wasn’t about to take his eyes off the road to look back, and the dog was too far down on the seat to be spotted in the rear view mirror. But he was pretty sure the dog wasn’t about to leap up and rip their throats out now or during any moment of their trip home. “He’s just a lost and scared puppy.”

“Yeah, well, if he doesth kill usth in our sthleep tonight, I restherve the right to sthay ‘I told you stho’ when I sthee you in hell.”

“It’s a deal,” Sweetie said, smirking.


“Well,” Nik said, watching with astonishment as the dog lapped continuously at the water in the metal bowl they’d set down for him. “I guessth he’sth not afraid of water.”

Sweetie nodded, rather amazed at how much the dog was drinking. Its large, floppy brown ears swung back and forth as its bright pink tongue curled and dipped in and out of the water bowl. It closed its black eyes as it drank, probably because it was rather sloppy and sent drops of water absolutely everywhere. Standing on all fours like this, his skinny legs straight, he came up as high as Sweetie’s thighs. His tail was longer yet, and even skinner, but quite powerful as it wagged. Its coat, which couldn’t be made out in the darkness earlier, turned out to be rather shiny and a lovely chocolate-brown color. It even had a bright purple collar around its neck but absolutely no tags or licenses. When it lifted its head for a moment, his tongue hanging out and dripping, it looked around at them all. Then he ducked his head back down and resumed drinking. Sweetie wondered how long it had been out there on its own, and he wondered what they could feed it. Him. The dog was most certainly, obviously a male.

“So you decided to bring the dog home?” Auntie Al asked, looking at the dog with a suspicious eye. “Where it could track dirt all over my nice clean floors?” He was only half-joking though, Sweetie knew.

“We brought you home, didn’t we?” Sweetie laughed, kissing Auntie Al’s cheek. “Besides, there was nothing else to be done with him. It’s late on a Saturday night and the vets will be closed tomorrow, maybe the animal shelters, too. We’ll have to wait until Monday at least.”

“We should put up postersth, too,” Nik suggested. “A nicthe dog like thisth? Sthomeone’sth bound to be looking for him, don’t you think?” Nik sat down at the kitchen table and the dog lifted its head again. The dog bounded over sat right down at Nik’s side. After a few second’s pause, the dog lifted a paw and scratched it at Nik’s leg, sliding against the slick red fabric.

Sweetie chuckled. “Oh, there’s a nice one for you. He comes close to hitting the dog, and it wants Nik as his best friend.”

Perhaps it did not realize who the driver had been, or perhaps it was just that Nik sat down first, but the dog seemed completely enamored with the blond man now. As soon as Nik’s hand began petting it, the dog’s eyes closed to slits and set its head down in Nik’s lap. “Awww…” Nik scratched behind the dog’s ears, and its tail thumped loudly on the floor. “He’s so sweet. Can we keep him?”

“That sounds awfully familiar. Isn’t that what you said about me?” Pit entered and headed for the refrigerator. “But I bet you didn’t pick him up in a parking lot.”

“Pretty close. He even has a collar like you, Big guy.” Sweetie grinned.

“We could put some blankets down on the floor for him to sleep on. That way if he has an accident, it’s just on the tile floor here,” said Auntie Al. The suggestion was accepted and, as Sweetie and Nik explained to Pit about the visitor, Auntie Al went to get the aforementioned blankets.

“I’ll bring my Polaroid camera up the next time I come,” Pit offered, when the topic of posters and flyers came up. He rooted through the refrigerator, only to find the dog at his side a second later. “Guys, I think he’s hungry.” Pit took an apple out and rubbed it on his shirt.

“We don’t have any dog food,” Sweetie told them. He walked over and joined Pit at the fridge. He surveyed the contents, glowing brightly in the dim kitchen. The only other light on was the one over the sick, where Auntie Al had been doing the dishes. Sweetie snagged the apple out of Pit’s hands and walked over to the sink, holding it under the tap water as he thought. “I know it sounds silly, but what about hot dogs? I thought I remember someone saying they used pieces of hot dogs during dog training.” He walked the properly-cleaned apple back to Pit, trading it for the package of hot dogs. There were three left.

“Let me,” Nik said at once, jumping up. There was something side-splittingly funny about Nik holding a wiener out, just below waist-level, for the dog to take from him. At the sight, Pit nearly choked on his first bite of apple and Sweetie crumpled to the floor in fits of uncontrollable laughter. When Auntie Al returned with some old, wool blankets, he added a healthy amount of laughter. The dog eagerly ate, snapping the meat right out of Nik’s hands. It took each by sinking its teeth into the hot dog and sliding it out gently, so it wouldn’t bite him. When finished, the dog snuffled and nuzzled against Nik’s hands, hoping for more. “That’sth it, Buster. Sthorry.”

The dog backed up and cocked its head at Nik. Then it began walking around the room, sniffing. It was Auntie Al who suggested they show it the backyard. The dog stood in the threshold of the doorway to the backyard patio for what seemed like three full minutes. “Go on,” Nik urged, finally giving its hindquarters a nudge. It whimpered but bolted out the door, sniffing everything in sight. It marked practically everything it sniffed, from the lawn furniture to the grill to the planters. It didn’t take long for the dog to find the grass beyond the patio and it immediately did its business there. Then it darted right back into the kitchen.

As soon as the dog entered, it noticed the blankets and seemed to know exactly what to do with them. After pawing at them and turning around twice, it settled down on them. It rested its head and closed its eyes. The boys looked on in amazement. Then they let it be, keeping the light over the sink on as a nightlight.


Sweetie and Auntie Al spent the morning on a search for the dog. The nest of blankets had been unoccupied when they first came downstairs, and there seemed to be no trace of the chocolate Labrador anywhere. Thankfully, they also did not find any indication that it had eaten holes in the walls or marked their indoor furniture. But the dog wasn’t in any of the rooms on the main level. All the doors downstairs, including the bedroom where Pit and his cat slept, were closed, so the only place left to try was the upstairs.

Tip-toeing down the hall, they peeked into the open rooms and tried not to wake the other sleepers. When they got to the end of the hallway, they found the door to Nik’s bedroom cracked. Sweetie pressed his palm to the door and eased it open a little more. The light from the hallway fell on the bed, revealing Nik asleep in bed. The dog was stretched out across the foot of the bed.

Either the dog heard them or sensed the light, because it opened its eyes. When it saw them, its tail started thwacking against the bed. Nik woke up at that, blinking and shading his eyes from the light.

Sweetie gave him a look. “Whatever happened to him killing us while we slept?”

“Out the window. The dog’sth a big sthoftie. He found me right after I went to bed,” said Nik sleepily. “It’sth definitely my new bestht friend.”

“In that case, we can’t keep calling it ‘it’,” said Auntie Al, strolling over and patting the dog’s head.

They quickly settled on Buster, which the dog didn’t exactly answer to, but it understood when they were calling it. Of course, it probably would have responded to just about anything where food was involved. Now that they knew where the dog was, Sweetie headed out to the store for dog food and pet supplies. Auntie Al went back to the kitchen to start breakfast. Nik and Buster went back to sleep together.


Auntie Al had a plate of French toast and a cup of coffee ready when Olly came downstairs for breakfast. The man looked tired, as always, but greeted Auntie Al with a smile and kiss before digging into the meal.

Coyote, on the other hand, greeted them with nothing but sneezes when he stumbled into the kitchen a few minutes later. He wore shiny blue boxers and white tube socks, and he had a tissue box tucked under his arm. With bloodshot eyes and an awful case of bed-head, he looked half-awake and terribly sneezy. “Ahh-Chuhh! Harchuhhh! AhhChushhh! Hahh-hahh-AhhChehh! Snfff!

“Bless you,” Olly gestured for Coyote to come over and sit down at the small table where the house residents ate usually ate breakfast or lunch. “You don’t look so good.”

Coyote shook his head, sinking into the seat and pulling a few tissues out of the box. He blew his nose powerful. Muffled in the tissues, “I dod’t feel so good. Snffff!” Olly reached up and felt his forehead for fever. Then his hand slid down, checking Olly’s lymph nodes. “Dod’t thidk I’b sick. Just… ahhhh-” He turned his head, pulling another tissue out of the box just in time. “ahhh-Ahshhuhh! ahhChuhh!” He snorted and blew his nose again. Then he coughed and made an awful sound in the back of his throat which startled them all.

“Your allergies are going crazy this morning. I can’t imagine what the matter is. Have you changed your shampoo or aftershave or anything like that?”

Doe-ahhh- hahhh…Coyote shook his head and gathered up more tissues. “ahhh-Chehhh! ahhChuhh! KChuhh!

Auntie Al brought over a glass of water and put a comforting hand on Coyote’s shoulder. “I suspect you’re allergic to Buster.” There was confusion and curiosity in the expressions of both men, and Auntie Al explained. “Sweetie and Nik brought a dog home last night. He’s been all over this kitchen and he’s upstairs now.”

Coyote nodded, jaw dropping open. “Oh yeah… ahhh…” More nodding. “That’d do it.” He buried his nose in a handful of tissues. “ahhhChhh! Sniff! hahhChuhh! hahChehh! ahhChuhh!” Coyote blew his nose again. Then he rubbed at an eye, wincing in pain.

Olly pulled his hand down, scolding with soft ‘tsk’s. Coyote pouted in frustration and sniffed wetly in Olly’s face. “I know your eyes itch. So let’s try some eye drops first, all right? Let’s go to the bathroom for some allergy medicine and we’ll get you fixed up.”  

Coyote turned his head again. “hahh-TChuhh!

“Bless you.” Olly rose out of his seat and kissed the top of Coyote’s head. “C’mon, Yo.” He looked over at Auntie Al. “Can you make sure the dog stays out of Coyote’s bedroom, at least?”             Auntie Al promised, and made a note to himself to vacuum the house thoroughly as soon as he’d seen to breakfast.


The rest of the day was a laidback one in the house. Olly went to work. Auntie Al cleaned. Coyote showered and stayed in his bedroom. The others went out back. Pit brought his camera to take some snapshots of the dog out in the light. Sweetie brought his laptop to put together a ‘Found Dog’ poster. And Nik threw a stick which Buster ran after hundreds of times, bringing it right back without fail each and every time. 

“Thisth dog,” said Nik, walking over to where Pit and Sweetie sat, “Isth the best dog in the entire world.”

Pit chuckled. He was stretched out in a lawn chair which was up against the wall and safely out of the way of direct sunlight. Sweetie sat in a matching black metal chair at a black metal table. His laptop and Polaroid photos took up all the space on the table. “Well, best dog in the world or not… we still have to put up these posters, I’m afraid.” He turned the laptop to show Nik the flyer. “How does it look?”

Nik studied it closely, then nodded. “I guessth it looksth all right. Better usthe the club phone number, though.”

“Good thinking.” Sweetie took his laptop back and changed the number. Nik was right in that they couldn’t be posting their home number all over town. In fact it might even help business to put the club number out there. Otherwise, the flyer was fine and ready to be taken inside to be printed. It gave the dog’s description and the location where he’d been found. They kept the information about the collar off the flyer in order to question any respondents. Sweetie saved the document and cocked his head, reading Nik’s expression. “Hey, you’re the one who suggested we do this. You’re the one who was sure Buster already had a family.”

“But now he’sth part of our family.” Nik patted the dog’s head, and the dog immediately wagged his tail.

“We were wrong before.” Sweetie chuckled. He perused through the photos, then selected the ones he liked best. He gathered the others into a stack. “It’s not Nik who has a new best friend, it’s Buster.” They laughed, but either way you looked at it, the two were practically inseparable already.


It was nine days later. Nine days of Buster sleeping at the foot of Nik’s bed. Nine days of playing fetch and keep-away. Nine days of buying bones and chew toys. Nine days of scooping poop. Nine days of Coyote on new allergy medication. Nine days of the entire household falling in love with their newest, furry resident.

It was nine days later when the phone at Strokes rang and the man on the other end asked about a lost dog. Sweetie moved the receiver of the office phone from his left ear to the right one. “Yes, you’ve got the right place. But how do I know you’re talking about the right dog?”

“Chocolate lab, incredibly sweet, wearing a thick, purple collar.”

Sweetie felt his stomach somersault. While he was glad to be able to reunite dog with owner, he had actually been hoping the identification might be wrong. It was difficult not to get attached to Buster. “That’s right,” he said finally, hoping that the reluctance was out of his voice.

“Oh thank God!” The man exhaled with relief. “I’ve been going absolutely crazy for days now. I was scared he’d been… he’s all right, then?”

“He’s fine. My partner and I found him at the side of the road in the middle of the night and took him home so he wouldn’t be hit. Apart from maybe a few too many Milkbone dog biscuits, he’s in perfect shape.”

“Well… thank you. You and your… your partner…” There was a pause. “I guess I should have known when you answered the phone with ‘Strokes’.”

“Oh.” Sweetie laughed. “Actually it’s not like that. Nik’s my business partner and… it takes some time to go through the whole explanation.” He cleared his throat. “So where can we take the dog? Could you give me your address?”

There was a longer pause. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” he said. “I live just outside of Baltimore, so it would be easier if I stop by your place.”

“My house is a bit difficult to find and we have a security gate.” Sweetie was terribly curious. “But Baltimore? What was Buster doing all the way over here in Stokes?”

“Buster?” The man laughed.

“We had to call him something!”

“I understand.” His laughing died down. “Well you see, Toby and I used to live in Stokes. I moved away with him about half a year ago. I went on a bit of a trip for work a few months back and found out when I came home last week that he’d managed to get free from the kennel where I was boarding him. I’ve been frantic with worry… but it looks like he was just as worried and trying to find me.”

Sweetie was touched. He had heard of such things happening before, and after nine days of getting to know Buster, he did not find such loyalty difficult to believe. “Maybe you can stop by the club and we’ll bring the dog?”

This time there wasn’t even a long pause. There was just silence. Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

Sweetie waited… and waited some more. Finally he broke into it, softly and carefully. “If you need the address—”

“It’s not that. It’s not what you think, either,” he said hurriedly. “I don’t have a problem with… with that. In fact, I know where Strokes is because I’m… well, I’m gay, too.  But I can’t go there right now because I’m a sailor.”

“Like on yachts?”

“Like in the Navy, actually. I can’t possibly be seen doing anything that might jeopardize that. I’m afraid that includes visiting gay nightclubs.”

With seriousness and not a hint of reluctance, “I understand. Have you got a paper and pen? I’ll give you the home address and directions.”

*          *          *


“This place is just as amazing as the first time I saw it.” He accepted a hug from Sweetie and hugged back. “I really appreciate you taking in Toby while I’m gone.”

“Toby! C’mere boy!” Both men looked over to see Nik darting out of the house. He bent down and patted his thighs. The chocolate lab looked up at its owner, who dropped the leash. Then the dog ran over to Nik, tail wagging, tongue hanging out of its mouth. Nik greeted Toby with pets and hugs, and Toby greeted Nik with nuzzles and sloppy kisses. Then Nik lifted his head, smiling. “Good to sthee you, too, Bradley.”

“I don’t kiss as well as he does.” Bradley chuckled and walked over to the pair. The sunlight caught his bright blond, buzzed hair as he walked from his car to the front of the mansion. Though medium build and average height, he was an incredibly captivating sight in his uniform.

Bradley squatted down and kissed Nik. Then he patted Toby’s head. “But I am happy to see you, too. It’s so good to know Toby will be well taken care of while I’m on my trip.” He looked up at Sweetie. “We haven’t worked out what I should pay you, though.” He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a few twenties. “I can cover expenses- food and treats- now, and I’d like to get the amount straightened out before I leave so I’ll know what to expect.”

“Sthoundsth like a good idea, doesthn’t it, Sthweetie?” Nik stood up as Sweetie walked over to them. “What do you think is a fair amount?”

Sweetie smiled. “Let’s see… play, care, attention… that seems like enough, doesn’t it?”

Nik nodded in agreement.

“I’m sorry?” Bradley stood up as well, flipping through the bills in his hand.

Sweetie reached over and closed his hand around Bradley’s. “What we’re saying is, it’s enough payment just for us to be able to hang out with Toby for a while and to help out a friend.”

Bradley stood there, blinking with confusion. “You must be kidding. Of course I can pay—”

“Oh, honey. We don’t need your money,” Nik laughed. “And we don’t want it.”

Sweetie put his arm around the aggie’s shoulders. “What we want is for you to take care and not worry about Toby.”

Nik put his arm around Bradley at the waist. “And maybe sthend usth a nicthe posthtcard or two, okay, Trip?”

Bradley looked at the two men with awe and gratitude. “Toby sure knew what he was doing when he found you two last year.”