• Ella craned her neck, looking around for a parking space. At first she had wondered if she’d gotten the address right, but the deafening clamor of barking dogs issuing from the back of the building erased all doubts in her mind. A couple of other cars were parked to one side of the driveway, so Ella carefully eased her immaculate Volkswagon to the side, parking behind an elderly black Dodge. Ella glanced nervously around; she’d never been to an animal shelter before and was unsure what to do next. Should she have made an appointment?
    She flipped down the visor and carefully examined her reflection in the mirror. When she was satisfied that her makeup was in order, she gingerly stepped out of the car, not forgetting to lock it behind her. Clutching her purse tightly, she walked up to the plain white door.
    She stood in front of it, noting the sign that she could now see clearly. It was a simple sheet of white paper encased in a plastic protective sheet that had been tacked to the door. Welcome to Love’s Open Arms Animal Rescue Center! It read in a large, cheery script. Below the posted operating hours, a much more solemn message: Donations and volunteers desperately needed. As Ella was wondering whether or not she was expected to knock, the door opened.
    The woman standing in front of her was squat, plump, and elderly, and she had a kind face that broke into a wide, welcoming smile. But Ella was aware, as she always was, of the woman’s eyes darting quickly to the side of her face before snapping back into focus. Ella bit down the old, weary humiliation that surged up within her. “Hi! Can I help you?” The woman asked.
    Ella stuck out her hand, which the older woman shook enthusiastically. “I’m Ella Richards. I’ve been looking for a dog to keep me company for awhile now, and my friend Kay showed me your website today. I found one that’s just perfect, and I would like to adopt her.”
    “That’s wonderful!” The older woman declared with a wide smile of delight. Her eyes sparkled. She threw the door open wide. “Come in, come in. We’ll go over a few details before we go to the kennel. I’m Shirley, by the way,” she added hastily over her shoulder as she walked inside.
    “It’s nice to meet you, Shirley,” Ella said as she followed the woman inside. The tiny hallway veered off to a small, dingy door, which Shirley pushed open.
    “This is our main office,” Shirley announced as Ella followed her inside. Ella glanced around, noting the bare, peeling walls and bad lighting. A fantastically cluttered desk dominated the room. Shirley sat down on the chair behind it. The only other furniture in the office were a set of metal filing cabinets and two folding chairs placed in front of the desk. Shirley caught Ella’s apprehensive glance and smiled sadly.
    “I apologize for the poor accommodations,” she said as Ella sat on one of the folding chairs. “We run mostly on government grants and donations, and both seem to be drying up lately. The animals are our number one priority, and their care comes first.”
    “I completely understand,” Ella said.
    Shirley clapped her hands together softly. “Now then,” she said as she began rummaging through the desk. She pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen and handed them to Ella. “This is just a basic information sheet; your name, phone number, address and such. We don’t have any strict requirements for potential adoptions, but we do like to know that the animals will be well taken care of.” Shirley scrutinized Ella carefully as she said it.
    “She will be,” Ella assured her as she carefully printed out her information on the form.
    “Have you ever owned a dog before?” Shirley asked.
    Ella paused and looked up. “No,” she admitted. “But I know what to do. I’ve read lots of pet-care books.”
    Shirley smiled. “Well, Ms. Richards, I think you’ll find that dogs are full of surprises not often covered in books.”
    “I’m sure,” Ella said as she hastily signed the bottom of the form. She handed it to Shirley, who placed it on the desk and then stood up.
    “There’s a few more things we need you to sign, but they can wait until after we meet your new dog. Now, the adoption fee is seventy dollars for large dogs, sixty for small ones, and eighty for puppies. Is that agreeable?”
    “It is,” Ella said.
    “Good!” Shirley exclaimed. “Now, if you’ll follow me, we’ll go out to the kennels.” Ella trailed behind the older woman as she carefully made her way back through the cramped hallway. As they passed a series of doors, each marked STORAGE, Shirley veered to the right and swung open another door. The loud barking of dozens upon dozens of dogs, which had been somewhat muted, increased in volume and Ella had to restrain the urge to put her hands over her ears against the din. Shirley turned in the doorway and faced Ella. “You said you already had a dog picked out. Which one was it?”
    “The Pomeranian,” Ella replied as she anxiously looked over the older woman’s shoulder. She caught a glimpse of several cages.
    Shirley smiled again, but her eyes filled with a deep sadness. “Zoey, you mean?”
    “Yes,” Ella said.
    Shirley chuckled, but Ella thought that it sounded strange, a little forced. “My. That didn’t take long at all.”
    “What do you mean?” Ella asked, adjusting her purse as she did.
    Shirley shook her head a little. “We just got her yesterday. She wasn’t cleared for adoption until this morning, when we put her ad up. I knew someone would get her soon. The purebreds, especially the pretty ones, get snatched up pretty quick.”
    Ella shifted uncomfortably. “Is that a bad thing?” She had a vague feeling that Shirley somehow disapproved of her choice.
    Shirley hesitated, and the sad expression left her eyes. Her smile seemed a little more natural now. “Of course not. I’m very glad that they get adopted so quickly. I just wish more people would give the other dogs a chance, too.”
    Ella was unsure exactly how to respond. But Shirley broke the awkward silence first. “Well, if you’ll follow me, she’s over here on the end.”
    Ella trailed behind the other woman, glancing around as the inhabitants of the cages barked furiously at her. The kennels seemed to be organized according to the size of the dogs, and they were currently passing the larger ones. Ella let her eyes drift around the room. Despite the obvious lack of funding, all of the animals seemed well fed and reasonably happy.
    “How did Zoey end up in the shelter, anyway?” She called to Shirley, raising her voice a little so as to be heard over the racket.
    “Her owner just couldn’t take care of her anymore,” Shirley replied over her shoulder. “It’s quite common, really. Happens more than you might think.”
    They’d reached the end of the room, where all of the smaller dogs were held. Ella’s gaze immediately fell upon the dog she’d wanted as soon as she’d seen her picture. She walked up to the cage and crouched down. The small, fluffy tan dog bounded up to her, yapping and pressing her face through the bars. Ella stroked the animal gently.
    “She’s so pretty,” Ella said breathlessly. She scratched Zoey behind the ears. “How could anyone give you up?”
    Ella glanced up as she heard the rattling of keys, which Shirley was pulling out of her pocket. She held up a leash. “Do you want me to let her out so you can meet her?” she asked.
    “Of course,” Ella replied, returning the other woman’s smile. Her heart thumped excitedly in her chest. She’d always wanted a dog when she was a little girl, but her parents had never allowed her to have one. Now, looking at the tiny dog in front of her, she felt as if her heart would burst with happiness.
    But as she waited for Shirley to unlock the cage, her gaze shifted to the right. What she saw caused all thoughts of the Pomeranian to temporarily vanish. She found she was unable to take her eyes off of the creature in the cage next to Zoey. It was one of the most compelling moments in her life.
    “Hold on,” she heard herself saying. Shirley paused, a curious expression on her face. Ella crouched down beside the other cage, looking at the dog inside.
    It was a medium-size, nondescript brown mutt. At first glance, it looked no different than any other mixed-breed dog one might see. But its neck, face, and front legs were covered in patches of hairless scar tissue, giving it a mangy look.
    It sat quietly by its food bowl. It gave Ella a quick, hopeful look before glancing away just as quickly. Its large brown eyes were heavy with sadness and unmistakable intelligence. It was strange to think so, but it seemed to Ella that the dog knew perfectly well it was disfigured and had learned long ago not to expect kindness from anyone.
    Ella touched her own face, gently sliding her fingers over the five ragged, raised scars that marred her beautiful features. The scars were relics of a car crash, long ago when she was still in high school. Before the accident, she’d been considered one of the most attractive girls in her graduating class. She’d spent a small fortune on various surgeries and dermatologist appointments attempting to remove them, but little progress had been made. She’d spent her entire adult life covering the scars up with heavy foundation that did little to mask them. She was deeply ashamed of her appearance.
    She was vaguely aware of Shirley crouching down beside her. The two women looked at the little dog, who stood up and trotted slowly to the bars of its cage. Without a trace of hesitation, Ella reached a hand through the bars and stroked its matted, wiry hair. She glanced at Shirley. “What happened to it?”
    Shirley sighed, and when she met Ella’s gaze her eyes were troubled. “He was set on fire.”
    Ella swallowed back her horror. It must have shown on her face, however, because Shirley continued. “Yes, I know. It’s horrible. When they were brought to court about it, the kids that did it to him cried their way out of trouble. They didn’t get any sort of punishment whatsoever. And Reggie will carry the scars for the rest of his life.”
    Ella continued stroking the dog’s fur, wondering how people could be so cruel. She tried to imagine the terrible pain the small animal had endured, and a dull, helpless fury rose up within her.
    “Reggie’s been here for three years,” continued Shirley. “We’re a no-kill shelter, of course, so some of the animals have been here for quite a while, but poor Reggie’s been here longer than any of them. Unfortunately, not that many people have shown much interest in him. I don’t know if it’s because of the scars or the fact that he’s…well, you know, not very pretty, but he’s not a young dog anymore. I’m terribly afraid that he’ll spend the rest of his life here.”
    Ella didn’t answer her at first. She was thinking about her own disfigured face, and how most people who didn’t look upon her scars with pity looked at them with horror or disgust. It seemed terribly unfair, and Ella came to her decision.
    “No, he won’t,” she said with a small contented smile. She stood up and pointed into the dog’s cage. “I want him.” And how good those words felt! In her heart, she knew that Reggie had probably never known that feeling before, that feeling of being wanted. It was easy, she mused to herself, to want and love dogs like Zoey. Anyone could do it. But now, she couldn’t imagine leaving this place without the little dog who had already touched a soft, vulnerable place in her heart.
    Shirley gaped open-mouthed at Ella, and then her eyes lit up with incredulous joy. " "Really?” she gasped.
    “Really!” Ella replied with a small laugh. At the sound of her voice, Reggie perked his ears up and gave his tail a single, hesitant wag.
    Shirley’s blue eyes, magnified behind the lenses of her glasses, swam with tears. She quickly turned and busied herself with the cage, the keys clanging against the metal. The small brown dog began wagging his tail frantically, his eyes wide. “I just can’t believe it,” she said thickly as she wiped her face. “I’ve been volunteering here for two years, and I honestly thought he’d never find a home.” She stooped down and gently picked up the dog before turning back to face Ella.
    Shirley’s eyes were dry now, but her eyes were red and inflamed. She gave Ella a watery smile as she held her arms out. Ella carefully took the dog and held him in her arms.
    Reggie’s fur was coarse and smelled rather bad, but Ella held him against her anyway, for once unmindful of her clean, expensive clothes. Reggie’s eyes met hers, and in them she saw the same hesitant hope that she herself felt. She gently touched the old scars that covered his face and chest. She was faintly alarmed to feel her own eyes sting with tears.
    “Do you want me to get the adoption forms ready?” Shirley asked. She had an odd expression on her face, as if she was hardly daring to believe what she was seeing.
    Ella nodded, and as she did a tear fell down her cheek. Shirley beamed widely and exited the kennel. Ella stroked Reggie’s fur.
    “It’s okay,” she said softly to the dog. His tail thumped against her purse in response. “You’re not beautiful, not really. But you’re beautiful to me. I’m not going to give up on you,” she added. And some part of her believed that Reggie actually understood what she was saying, for after a moment’s hesitation he laid his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes.