Chapter 3:

Another Day at the Paw-ffice

My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job

My brother sulked in the doorway while I compared paint samples on the wall. “What is it, bud? I’m kinda busy here.” I leaned against the bedframe to catch my breath and studied the colored squares in my hand.

Cale put the cardboard box he was holding on the floor, only to pick it up again. “Why do I have to move my stuff?”

My face scrunched, and I took a deep breath. If I was a drinker, this would have been cause for a glass. Instead, I balled my fists tight and relaxed them. “We told you this months ago, Cale.” I did not look at him, instead trying out paint swatches with and without light in the room. “We need the biggest guest room for the nursery. The baby is coming in a few months, and we have to get ready.” I rubbed my stomach to remind him we would not be waiting long. “You don’t have to move out of the house. Just down the hall to the smaller bedroom.”

His grip tightened on the box, and he grumbled, “Why does the baby get the big bedroom?”

I remained silent as Nathan strode into the room and responded, “Because she lives here, bro. You don’t.” I shot him a look, and he cleared his throat. “You’ll be finding an apartment soon, and the baby will be here for the next eighteen, maybe twenty years. It doesn’t make sense to give her or him the small room and then move everything a couple months later when you leave.”

He exhaled heavily. “You’re right.”

“Yeah, I know,” I whispered under my breath, “We told this to you months ago.”

My husband’s arm snaked around me and squeezed. He leaned in close, whispering, “Not long now. It’s alright.” He patted my arm a couple times before grabbing an end table beside the big bed. “Come on, Cale. Help your brother-in-law out here. Let’s get this furniture to your new room.”

Cale held up his box and muttered, “I’m already carrying this.”

“Well, let’s get that box into the next room, and you can help me with the rest of this stuff after.” He hefted the end table and scooted by Cale, heading down the hall. With a small huff, my brother followed.

I rubbed my face and put the paint samples on the windowsill. My phone buzzed, and I checked the screen. It was a message from my best friend Melissa. She was giving me advice about curtains and wallpapers. Because she lived across the country, she wasn’t able to come and help set up the nursery in person. However, she had kids of her own, making her the perfect person to brainstorm with me.

“I’m thinking an animal theme,” she wrote, “Every kid loves animals. Trust me, Malachi is still in his dinosaur phase.”

I laughed and typed, “But do we go with classic Noah’s Ark or something more subtle?”

“Noah’s Ark?! No way! Nobody wants to explain Noah’s Ark to a child!”

Nathan popped into the room with a toolbag under his arm. “Time for me and your brother to take apart this bed!” His tone was cheerful, but sweat coated his face. The loose shirt he usually wore was sticking to him.

A happy tune from my phone interrupted him mid-chuckle. Cale also poked his head into the room when he heard the tone. I shook my head, still clutching the device. “Sorry, baby, but he’s gotta go to work today.”

The smile drooped. “That’s today?”

I nodded, grabbing my purse from the doorway. “I’ll do what I can until he gets back.”

“No, no, no. I’m fine!” His shoulders perked up, and he nodded. Wet droplets flew from his unkempt hair into the air around him. “I got this!”

Though I could tell his enthusiasm was false, there was no time to reassure him. “Let’s go, Cale.” We rushed out the door and into the car.

Elizabet sipped her soda and focused her attention on the man in front of her. He had a short, kinky afro, and a blue polo was tucked into his khaki pants. The smell of motor oil and cologne wafted from him. When her sister signed her onto a dating site last month, she had no idea she would match with anyone, let alone someone from the same town.

“My boy recently started designing hats,” he was saying, pulling out his phone, “At first, I wasn’t a big fan. I wanted him to enjoy doing the things I like, you understand. But someone made me realize people are made of all kinds of makes and models. After all, if there were only trucks or vans, the world would get pretty boring. My boy is a different type of make and model than me, and that’s alright.” He beamed and held out his phone. “I’m still mighty proud of him.”

She leaned in and looked at the screen. A teenager smiled shyly as he stood beside a mannequin head. In his hand, he held a sketchbook with numerous drawings of intricate hats. Her date swiped the screen with a finger, and another picture of the same boy appeared. This time, he was beaming as he stood beside an attractive woman. She was wearing a large derby hat with flowers and ribbon, identical to one in the sketchbook.

“He looks very happy,” Elizabet stated with a grin, holding her glass with both hands, “I’m sure he appreciates your support of his decisions.”

The man nodded as their waiter approached the table. He took his food, thanked the man, and turned back to her. “It’s funny. The person who changed my mind, I didn’t really know him all that well. He only worked with me for a day. But that day may have just changed my life.”

Elizabet dipped a fry in ketchup and ate it whole. The tangy taste was familiar and comforting, like going home after a long day at the job. “Just a day? How does that work?”

Antoine laughed. “Heck if I know. I didn’t mind, though.” He bit into his hamburger, chewed for a second, and swallowed. “He said the job wasn’t for him. I really hope he finds something that is, though. That guy deserves the best.”

“Nope.” Cale stood outside the pet store with his fists balled at his sides. “I’m not going.”

I stood beside him, waiting for the frustration to pass so I could escort him into the building. “This was the closest job available to the house. There was no way I could pass it up. Besides, you love dogs.”

“I don’t love dogs.”

Visions of him with our childhood pet flashed through my mind. He turned away when the puppy was in the room. He kept doors closed, so it wouldn’t get fur on his things. He never took it for a walk or fed it; that was all me. The most affection that little mutt ever got was an awkward pat on the head. Not a pet, a pat.

“Maybe you just don’t realize you love them,” I replied. My brain was too busy texting Melissa to make much sense. “Anyway, maybe they’ll have jobs in other areas. Like with snakes or cats. Maybe you can restock the shelves.”

“I’m allergic to cats.”

“No, I’m allergic to cats.” I stuck my phone back into my pocket and added, “You can’t say you have an allergy because someone else in the family has it. That’s not how it works.” The phone rang, and I groaned. “I just put this thing away. Oh, it’s Nathan.” I accepted the call and forced myself to smile. “What’s up, honey?”

A tinny voice spoke into my ear. “I need you to come home and tell me where you want me to put all this junk.”

“It’s not junk. It’s Cale’s stuff.” I cupped my hand over the receiver and whispered, “Even if some of it is junk.” I continued in a normal voice, “I’ll be right there. I’ve got to convince Cale to go to work first.”

“Okay. See you soon. I love you.” He never questioned why I had to convince my brother to show up at his job. Nathan knew Cale as well as I did or better. His quirks were nothing new.

I made a kissing noise into the receiver and hung up. “Alright, bud, I gotta go. You’re already late. On your first day, that’s almost bad luck.”

“I don’t believe in luck,” he mumbled, but he shifted on his feet. “You just know I don’t like animals.”

“You’ll be fine,” I assured, inching into the car, “I’ll be back to pick you up in a few hours. Have a good day!” I slid behind the wheel, started the engine, and sped away.

Cale watched the car until it faded from view. With a sigh, he strode toward the entrance. Cool air blasted him from above as he stepped through the automatic doors. His nose wrinkled at the smell of dog food, chemically treated water, and guinea pigs. At this one-stop shop, the odors combined into something nearly alive. He found his hand moving to plug his nose when someone barreled up to him.

A frazzled woman with a cap pulled onto her brown ponytail appeared at his side. Her jeans were splattered with stains, an aroma of rodent urine surrounded her, and her t-shirt was emblazoned with the pet store logo. “Welcome. You’re late.” She glanced at a clipboard in her hand and added, “Cole.”

“Uh. It’s –”

“It’s fine. Just follow me.” She started down the main aisle, heading toward the back where the dogs are kept. Cale had to take three shuffling steps for every one of her strides. “We’re going to start you off small. For today, you can just hang out with the dogs and keep them happy. Eventually, we’ll have you stocking shelves and interacting with customers. On a normal first day, I would do some kind of training with you. Unfortunately, only one of our volunteers decided to show up.” They reached the back of the store, where she pushed open a door to the kennel. “That means we have a lot of dogs who want to play, and only one person to play with them.”

She gestured toward a younger girl in the same outfit standing just outside a large cage. The girl waved, and without moving his hand from his side, Cale waved back. The manager continued, “You’ll be fine. It doesn’t take any training to play with a dog.” A walkie-talkie on her hip buzzed, and she swore.

“You shouldn’t say that,” Cale muttered, but she did not hear him.

“I’ve got to go. There’s an emergency in the aquarium section.” She strode toward the main door and waved without looking back. “Enjoy your first day on the job.”

He sighed and muttered, “I just don’t like dogs” before joining the girl in the back. She seemed to be of high school age, and her short blonde hair poked out from underneath her hat. A grin spread across her face as a small dog jumped toward her face. Its tongue began to lap her cheek as if it were made of honey.

“Down, boy, down.” She laughed, and Cale froze. “I’m Brandy.”


“You don’t like dogs, huh, Cale? What are you doing here, then?”

Cale growled. “My sister.”

“Ah, she must have set up this job for you.” Brandy nodded, the dog cradled in her arms. “Well, it isn’t a hard job. Even if you don’t like dogs, you should be able to do it fine.” She closed the door leading to the store and put the little dog on the ground. It ran in circles around her and bolted down the hallway. “First, we let them outside to play,” she explained, opening the door of a pit bull’s cage, “but not all of them.”

With a melancholy pout, she stuck a finger through the bars of the next cage. Cale watched as a large white dog backed away from her. It stank, and its white coat was matted. A growl sounded in its throat. He could not tell what kind of dog this was, had never seen anything quite like it. But it wasn’t happy, he knew that much.

“Anyway, you can skip cages number three, six, and thirteen,” she continued, pointing to a number on the door, “All the others can be let out. We’ll take them to the fenced-in yard and let them run around for a while. Then we fill their food bowls and stuff.”

Cale opened the doors to all the cages except the ones Brandy had named. He tried to move out of the way as the dogs attempted to interact with him. Some of them sniffed his hand; others leaped up for a face lick. Regardless, he turned away and shuffled quickly to the next cage, avoiding the playful creatures.

When he opened the door to the yard, sunbeams shone down on his skin. He felt like he was molting, transforming into something other than himself. His body lifted into the air, glowing like the moon. He stretched and shifted until his torso began to lengthen. His arms shrank and slid into his shirt, then melted into his body. His face elongated, and his tongue split down the middle. He landed with a thud on the grass outside, wriggling and confused.

He was a giant snake.

“Ah man. I wanted to be a bearded dragon.” His gravelly voice hissed.

A small puff appeared beside him, and he saw his sidekick – his younger sister and biggest fan. She was a Yorkie puppy. With a happy yip, she licked his face, and he spat on the grass. “Ptew, ptewy. Yuck!”

The other dogs, who seemed not to notice the transformation, swarmed around him. Their eyes burned red, and saliva dripped from their open mouths. Their breath stank of rotting meat. In place of teeth, they had rows of fangs, ready to slice into his scaly flesh. He slithered to the other end of the yard, trying to keep his distance. “Ssssstay away,” he hissed, but they continued to follow him. His pace increased, and the dogs started to run. “Sssstay away!” One of them howled, and the others barked. All of them were on the same page – pursue until the target is captured.

The little sister Yorkie yipped and pressed through the crowd. She held out her paws like a traffic officer, trying to slow them down. None of the dogs noticed her. She grabbed onto a larger pup’s foot, but it slipped from her grip. She whined and barked her own disapproval. With a tiny growl, she leaped into the air, landing on the back of a Great Dane. Her whine continued, as she clung to the massive dog’s back with all four legs.

The giant snake swept through the yard like a ground missile. He shot through plastic tunnels, around orange cones, and under bars. The dogs kept pace. A larger German Shepherd began to gain ground, and Cale hissed. He found a tree in the middle of the yard and wrapped his enormous body around it. With a powerful grip, he slipped and slid into the branches, lying on his stomach high above the dogs’ heads. They surrounded the tree. “Guess you can’t reach me up here.”

“They can’t climb like our cats can.” Brandy walked out the door with a different puppy in her arms. The dog was trembling, and she pet it on the head, whispering encouraging words in its floppy ears.

Cale was sitting at the top of a slide, fully human. “Oh.”

Brandyl smiled at him and called to the dogs, allowing Cale time to retreat from his hiding space. “Thank you for playing chase with them,” she said as the pups wagged their tails around her, “That’s their favorite game. Now, we have a few more things to do before we can let out the others.”

Cale nodded and transformed back into the giant snake. Brandy did not seem to notice. She gestured for him to follow her and propped open the door between the yard and the kennels. Once inside, she rummaged in a closet until she held up a huge treasure chest. The giant box glimmered and shone in the outside light. Cale’s jaw dropped as he noticed the jewels on each corner. His little Yorkie, finally able to extricate herself from her mount, drooled at the sight of such a precious find.

Something whined, and he turned to see a fluffy black lab staring at the treasure. It’s eyes glittered, and all sense was gone from its mind. It barked once, and the others lined up beside it, all staring at the prize. Brandy clutched the chest to her and thrust a handful of gold onto the ground at Cale’s feet. “Keep them busy for me.” She scrambled to her feet and raced down the hallway, trunk in hand.

Cale nodded and mumbled, “Okay.” There was no way he could pick up those gems in his snake form. His sister barked nearby, alerting him to her presence. He nodded. “Keep them busy,” he instructed, and she saluted, filling her jaws with precious minerals.

The tiny pup ran around the yard, dropping jewels as she went. The other dogs followed her like children following the piper, but she managed to outpace all of them. None of them noticed the stack of gems behind Cale’s massive reptilian figure. When the little Yorkie ran low, she returned to the doorway and slipped extra jewels into her tail, front paws, mouth, wherever she could hold them.

Cale heard a growl. Two dogs were facing off over a particularly large diamond. The bigger dog leaned forward and growled at a smaller one who barked viciously. Its high-pitched yips were overshadowed by the guttural growling, but neither backed down.

Another diamond flew over their heads, landing a few paces away. After a final warning bark, the larger dog followed the scent to his own gem, leaving the original. Cale hissed in satisfaction, and his Yorkie nodded. Her mouth was full of gems, and he laughed. “Sssstill the sssssame, aren’t ya, sssssis.” She barked and spit a couple rubies from her mouth.

“Phew.” Brandy stood beside him, wiping her glistening forehead with her shirt. She brushed her hands together and exhaled. “Thanks for distracting them with all those dog biscuits. It’s really hard to fill their food bowls when they see me get that big bag out of the closet.” She finally looked up and noticed Cale was still standing in the doorway. She leaned into the yard and sputtered, “Um. Uh. Huh?”

A drone dropped dog biscuits and the occasional handful of food from a foot in the air. Whenever a big dog lunged at it, it zoomed away. Smaller pups barked, but they were too excited about the treats to engage it for long.

“Where did that drone come from?”

Cale froze, his hand on the controller. The drone buzzed out of reach of the Great Dane, who stared curiously at it.

The girl repeated her question. “Where did you find that thing?”

Cale shrugged and went back to dropping treats.

“But –” Her voice failed, and she tried again. “This is a pet store. How –” Cale stared at her. His eyes betrayed nothing, and she finally sighed. “Okay, well, never mind. Just put it away, and let’s get on with the rest of this.” He nodded, and she turned. When she looked back at him, the drone was gone, and she did not bother to ask where he put it.

They rounded up the dogs and corralled them back into their cages. Now, it was time to feed the remaining three. “We have to be really careful with these guys. They were abused, and they’re still very scared of people,” she explained. She inched into the large fluffy dog’s kennel.

Its eyes glowed red, and its teeth grew into fangs. Drool dripped from its mouth as it growled at her. Brown hair stood up on its back, and it lunged.

Cale’s transformation was immediate. He wrapped around the dog python-style and began to squeeze. Brandy breathed heavily, more out of fear than any real harm. “Don’t hurt him,” she managed to gasp, “He didn’t mean to.”

Cale was about to release the dog when it opened its mouth and bit into his skin. He hissed and released the canine. It landed with a thump on the floor of the kennel and rose into the air again. The menacing mutt had also transformed. The snake smacked the top of the dog’s head like a basketball, and it bounced. When the head stopped bouncing, it growled. Cale bounced the dog up and down until it panted happily, ready to kiss the girl it had attacked.

Brandy smiled at Cale, but her brows remained furrowed. “I’ve never seen him warm to anyone this quickly.” Her gaze swept over the newbie, and she shook her head. “I’ve also never seen anyone handle him quite like this, either.”

A wooden back scratcher was gently patting the dog on the head. Occasionally, it ran over the fuzzy fur for a light scratch. Then it went back to patting. “There, there, nice doggie,” Cale chanted. He pulled the backscratcher out of the cage as Brandy backed up and relocked the door.

She leaned against the wall and sighed. “That’s about it for today. I think the other volunteers will be back tomorrow, so you’ll probably be training in the store from now on.” She grinned. “This is my favorite part, though. I don’t want to get paid. I just want to play with the dogs. You’re probably excited to get out of here and into the store, though, huh?”

He held his hands like puppets and shook them side to side. “Nope.”

“Why not?” She wiped her hands on her faded jeans. Drool marks appeared near the pockets.

“Because I’m not working here.” He stepped out of the kennel and shook his shirt with a heavy sigh. “There’s hair all over my clothes.”

Brandy giggled. “Well, yeah. That comes with the job.”

“I’m just not cut out for this,” he muttered, tromping toward the main entrance.

His co-worker opened her mouth to reply but thought better of it. “It was nice to meet you!” He turned and waved before disappearing out the door.

“So how was work?”

Nathan lounged on the couch after a much-needed shower. His phone showed a steamer playing Creds. I leaned over to see who it was. “Ah, ButterflySlayz.” She had gotten even more popular after Cale dropped off the platform. In fact, this week she was hosting a campaign and inviting streamers from all over the world to join her in fighting cyber-bullying. Her slogan was “Why can’t girls play? Ending online prejudices.” That sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place why.

“How was work, my man?” Nathan repeated his question.

Cale sighed and shuffled down the hall toward his old bedroom. I murmured, “Wait for it” and was rewarded with a loud huff. He tromped to the other side of the house where his new bedroom was half set up. “He forgot we moved everything today,” I chuckled, “I knew that would happen.” My fingers scrolled through Pin-It, looking for more inspiration for the ocean theme Melissa and I had decided upon.

“But how did his work go?” What he really wanted to ask was if we would have to continue the search for another job, on top of apartment hunting and baby preparation.

I shook my head with another chuckle. “It was a pet store. How do you think it went?”

He grimaced. “That bad, huh?”

My shoulders shrugged, but my eyes never left my phone. “He didn’t tell me anything. Just growled and said (I deepened my voice for my best Cale impersonation), ‘I’m never going back there again.’ The manager and the girl he worked with only had good things to say, though.” I squealed and thrust the phone screen into my husband’s face. He jerked back and held it with his own two hands. “Look at that adorable wallpaper!”

He closed his eyes. “I thought you didn’t want wallpaper. Something about it being too old-fashioned.”

“But it’s so cute!”

He shook his head and laid it on my lap. “Let me know when you find something cute that we can put on the walls ourselves. For now, I’m going to take a nap.”

I pet his head, and he stretched his legs to the edge of the couch. I opened my mouth to yawn, and a tiny squeak emerged. A giggle escaped my lips. “No wonder Cale doesn’t want to work with dogs. He’s already got two puppies here.” We both barked, laughing at the loud groan from the other room.