This post in our "Author Series" comes from Carrie Maloney whose novel Breath to Breath is about a veterinarian in a small Wisconsin town and the various creatures in her life—some human, some not. Carrie tells us about how she came to write the novel and shares an excerpt.
A zillion years ago, when I first decided to write a novel, before I even had a plot in mind, I knew it would be about dogs. More specifically, kindness toward dogs. Was it possible to write a riveting, non-preachy story that sparked readers to think about their own feelings toward animals? To get there, I felt I should explore the minds of humans who shared my empathy for other creatures—and those who did not.
I thought about a news story I’d heard way back in 1995 and had never been able to shake. A man in Florida had buried a litter of puppies while the mother dog watched, chained to her doghouse. The mother had finally broken free and dug up her pups.
Most of those puppies lived—but I never knew what happened to them. So I decided to script a happy ending for them all: the veterinarian who saved the dogs, the people who adopted them, and even the guy who had tried to do them harm.
It’s a dark premise, but this story is completely safe for us animal lovers. In fact, a statement on the back cover of my book reads: No animal dies in any scene of this book.
At its core, Breath to Breath is about all creatures everywhere. It’s about our vast differences from one another and the wants we all have: To feel safe. To feel happy. To feel like we belong.
I am pleased to share an excerpt of my book with the readers of Grey Matters. In this scene we join the main character, veterinarian Anna Dunlop, tending to a dog on her exam table. The stranger who showed up carrying the injured Rottweiler is now watching her work.
Excerpt from Breath to Breath by Carrie Maloney
He stood and smiled down at her with an invitation to smile back, which she eventually did.
With the scrap metal extracted, she finally rose, realizing from her full six-foot-two perspective, she was still looking up into the man’s eyes. She took her first long look at her client since he’d entered her clinic about half an hour earlier.
She’d just arrived for the day when he’d come through the front door carrying the limp, bloodied Rottweiler, and the dog had held her full attention ever since. She stared at the man’s unusual face. Muscular, angular, a continent of hard ridges of varying elevations, engulfing eyes that sent messages of kindness and curiosity.
“Guess I was too close. Sorry ’bout that.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Sort of.” He said it with a grin and a shrug.
Good gawd, is he flirting with me?
The dog groaned softly, and that interesting face looked down at the animal, darkening.
“You can keep him alive, can’t you? He looks pretty bad. Damn. I wish I would have found him sooner.”
“I can’t be sure yet, but as bad as he looks from the outside, I’m thinking his insides might be all right.” She touched the sutures on the dog’s neck. “I’ve stopped the bleeding and he’s stable.”
She bent over again, relaxing into the work which always soothed her. She flushed the injury with water, then gave it a good antiseptic wash.
“I’ll be taking him into surgery as soon as Katie—my vet tech—gets here. Which should be any second.” She reached for the electric clippers. “He’s going to lose this eye though.” She began to shave around it.
“Oh, no.” The man reached out to touch the head of the panting Rottweiler. “Aw, the poor guy.”
The animal’s drool mixed with blood on the metal table in a small, pink pool.
“You know what?” She wanted to smooth some of the worry from the man’s expression. “His other eye looks totally normal to me. He’ll get around just fine.”
Anna guessed her client to be somewhere in his mid thirties. In gym shorts and a blood-drenched T-shirt, he revealed an athletic body that would have had no trouble hefting a 130-pound dog.
“Were you out running this morning? Is that how you found him?” She assembled a smile. Chatting had never been her strong suit.
She squirted blue surgical solution onto a gauze pad and began gently cleansing the dog’s skin. The fresh, soapy smell was a familiar sensation among others more unknown.
“Yeah. I was heading up that big hill in the woods behind the quarry. I like to run out there early. Lots of company that time of day.”
“Really? I’ve been up there tons of times and haven’t seen a single human being.”
“Yeah, neither have I,” he said, petting the dog’s massive head. “But there’s always some kind of interesting critter up there on the lookout for his breakfast. I even spotted a coyote once, which was odd because they’re pretty nocturnal, aren’t they?”
“Um, mostly—yes.” Her voice cracked. This second smile, though sheepish, came easily.
“Until today, though,” he said, looking into the wide eyes of the trembling dog, “all of the animals out there have been alive and well, not whining in a ditch by the road.”
“I’m pretty sure he was hit by a car.”
“You think so?” He blinked his eyes a few times. “You mean someone hit this dog and just kept driving?”
“You’d be surprised how often that happens.”
“That—doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Anna studied his face for signs of a joke being played on her, as she listened to the dog’s lungs through her stethoscope. She began moving about the room, gathering up instruments and supplies, feeling the client’s magnet pulling on hers.
“So, what should I name him?” he asked, from a faraway planet.
She turned a one-eighty, accidentally kicking the IV stand. “You’re going to keep him?”
“Well, yeah, if no one claims him. I don’t think there’s anything sadder than a dog with no one to take him in.” He gently wrapped his hand around the Rottweiler’s snout. “Everybody’s got to belong somewhere.”
Anna’s breathing had become shallow.
“Call him anything but Cujo. I know way too many big dogs named Cujo.”
“Ha! I bet.” He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes narrowing. “No, I think an animal coming from a tragic place like this should have a name that lifts him up from here, don’t you? Like… Apollo. Or Galahad. Some name that says he has—value, you know?”
She did know.
“What’s your name?” she said, hearing the bold question, wondering who’d asked it. “I’m sorry; I know you told me when you came in, but I was distracted by our patient here.”
“Yeah, of course. Tony. My name’s Tony. Griffin.”
“I’m Anna Dunlop.” She offered him a hand but pulled it back when she noticed the amount of blood on her rubber glove.
Chuckling, he showed her his own red-smeared palms, then reached both of them out to take her right hand.
“Uh—wait,” she said. “I’ve got a card.” She jerked her hand away to fish around in the pocket of her white coat. “Here.” She pushed it in his direction.
The puzzled look on Tony’s face drew her attention down to the bloodied lottery ticket clutched in her fingers. Her whole body flinched. “Wow. Please be gone when I look up again.” Anna held her gaze on the cartoon treasure chest overflowing with gold and the bold headline above the five scratch-off pads.
“Jackpot!” he said, brightly. “I like it.” He gave her a playful nod. And then he grew solemn.
He squatted down to put his face by the black, triangular ear drooping against the dog’s head. “Jackpot.” The name was half whisper.
The texture of Tony’s voice slid like a warm fingertip down the back of Anna’s neck.
“You have to focus on getting strong again, Jackpot.” As he spoke, his lips almost brushed the silky edge of the dog’s ear. “You’re not done here yet, you got that?” He rested the flat of his hand gently across Jackpot’s forehead, and the animal stopped shivering.
Anna turned away from the private moment they were having, this dog and his man. She noticed the stainless wall cabinet a little to her left and leaned over to catch her reflection.
She wanted to see what love looked like.
For more about Breath to Breath, visit www.breathtobreath.com.
The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.