I was eleven and the world was safe.
It was four o’clock on a Wednesday in April. I was the only person home, same as most weekdays. And, same as most weekdays, I was leashing up our lhasa apso, Bumble, for his walk. He was big for his breed, although still a small dog, and I had to hurry along behind him as he tugged me excitedly to the front door. It was a cool, sunny afternoon, and we set out at a brisk pace in search of adventure.
Adventure meaning one go around the block with a pause at all the yards so Bumble and the neighbor dogs could trade a good sniff.
There’s only so much you can expect from a quiet, middle class neighborhood.
We were paused in front of the Paolas’ to let Bumble say his hellos to their bully mix, Peanut, when I realized there was a car idling just up the street from us. I glanced at it without much interest. It was an SUV, looked like it was newish, the kind of car a ton of the soccer moms in my neighborhood drove. I thought they might be waiting for me to cross the street and gave a little wave for them to pass.
The car crept slowly forward and I turned back to the dogs. Bumble was pawing at the ground and Peanut had reared up to stand on her hind legs, her front paws hooked over the top of the fence so I’d reach over and pet her.
I don’t think any of us had time to realize what was happening before a hand was shoved roughly over my mouth and I was being yanked backwards. Instinctively, my grip on Bumble’s leash tightened and I squirmed as hard as I could while my dog, pulled suddenly off balance, turned and began to bark.
The SUV, still running, had come to a stop behind me.
“Get her in!” A woman said from the front seat.
“She won’t let go of the damn dog!” A man, the one who had hold of me, hissed back.
While I struggled, my usually docile and gentle Bumble leapt at my attacker, snapping his teeth and snarling with all the ferociousness his small body could muster. Peanut was jumping at her fence, her head thrown back in deep, rumbling barks.
“Then kill it and get her in here!”
Bumble yelped so sharply when he was kicked that every hair on the back of my neck stood on end. He crumpled against the ground for a moment, but was pushing himself back up almost immediately and readying to charge again with a pained growl. As terrified as I was, I couldn’t bear to see my sweet boy hurt again and I threw his leash down as I was hauled backwards.
The car door slammed behind me. I was thrown to the floor and the SUV peeled noisily away. It was over in seconds.
“Stay down there,” the one who’d grabbed me said. His voice was cold with warning. “If you move or make a sound, we’ll go back and run your puppy over. It’ll be all your fault. Got it?”
I swallowed the jagged sob that threatened to choke me and curled up with my face in my hands.
Don’t hurt Bumble, I pleaded silently. Don’t hurt me.
“Did anyone see?” The driver asked.
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see anyone.”
The inside of the car smelled like the one we’d rented when we’d gone out west to visit Grandma. Plasticy and perfumed. The carpet was scratchy against my cheek, but I didn’t dare to move or complain. I could barely bring myself to breathe. I didn’t know what to think or even if I could think. The inside of my head has been painted bright white with fear. The only thing that managed to cut through it were the same six words and my dog’s agonized yelp.
Don’t hurt Bumble. Don’t hurt me.
My eyes burned with tears and suddenly I was shaking uncontrollably. A warm puddle formed beneath me, but I just laid in it. How often had I been warned at home and at school about stranger danger? They had told us all about what we should do if we thought we were being followed or someone was making us uncomfortable.
Nobody tells you what to do after.
“We need to pull over and swap license plates,” I heard the man say.
“No,” the woman replied. She was obviously on edge. “Not yet. We’re still too close. Let’s get up the highway a bit.”
They kept talking. First arguing about whether to change the license plate, then about when and where they were meeting someone. Something about a hand off and money and getting me across the border before my face was all over the news. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I was being crushed beneath an overwhelming wave of fear and confusion.
I just wanted to go home. I just wanted my mom and my dad and Bumble!
The piercing wail that burst uncontrollably out of me filled the vehicle.
“Shut her up,” the woman said.
The man leaned low in his seat until his face took up my entire vision. “You make one more sound and I’ll cut your tongue out. Oh, shit, Gemma, she pissed herself.”
“We’ll deal with it later. Just keep her down and quiet. Stop sign coming up; I can’t run it. We can’t risk it.”
I was nudged roughly with the toe of his shoe and he wrinkled his nose in disgust.
The SUV rolled to a stop and the couple sat in a tense silence. Right before we started to move again, I heard a familiar, but distant bark somewhere behind the car. It was accompanied by a deeper, rumbling one.
The man twisted in his seat. “Her dog’s following us. The other one, too.” He sounded almost amused. “Back over them.”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” Gemma said tersely.
Don’t hurt Bumble. Don’t hurt me.
The sound of Bumble and Peanut’s barking faded as we turned a corner and I hugged my knees to my chest, trying once again to keep the scream that was flooding my lungs from escaping.
The general hum of traffic told me we’d merged on to a main road. Probably the one right outside of my neighborhood. Gemma was becoming more agitated and kept muttering about how busy it was. The man was also fidgety and there was a line of sweat glistening on his upper lip. He wiped the sleeve of his jacket over it repeatedly, but it just reappeared again almost immediately.
At some point, he’d pulled out a pocket knife and was flipping the blade in and out and in and out with a nervous twitch of his fingers.
He caught me staring up at him and pointed its tip down at me. “One sound, one move,” he threatened.
A surge of nausea sprang from my stomach and I almost vomited my terror right on his shoes.
“Why are we going so slowly?” Gemma was anxiously drumming the steering wheel. “We have to be at the depot in two hours. They won’t wait, not even for a blonde girl.”
“They will. You know how much a kid like this gets them.”
A kid like this? I didn’t know what he meant, but the look he gave me was enough to let me know it was anything but good. I bit down on the inside of my cheek and reburied my face beneath the shelter of my arms.
The traffic slowed around us until we were crawling along. Gemma cursed continuously under her breath. The man played with his knife. The metallic sliding noise it made with each click of its release sent ice rippling down my spine. My face was wet and sticky from my runny nose and eyes. The puddle beneath me had grown cold. I still didn’t move. I just stared up at the knife, watching its blade.
In and out, in and out.
There was a loud slam against the back door beside the man and all three of us jumped. A loud, long series of scrapes, like nails on a chalkboard, followed.
“It’s that fucking dog,” the man growled.
Outside his window, Peanut growled back and continued to claw at the door.
Metal crinkled and groaned from up front and Gemma laid on her horn.
“What the hell,” the man demanded while Peanut howled at him through his window.
“A dog is trying to take off the front bumper!”
“Run it over!”
“Where the fuck do you want me to go? We’re stuck here!”
While they argued, the car bounced slightly in the front. Gemma shrieked and there were scratching sounds against the windshield, as if something was trying to get in. A deep throated growl resonated through the glass. The couple screamed at each other, at the dogs attacking the car, and at me for breaking down.
“People are looking!” Gemma yelled. Desperation was seeping into her voice.
And somehow, over it all, I heard that same familiar bark that woke me every morning from outside my bedroom door. The same one that greeted me when I got home from school every day. The same one that had chased us here unrelentingly.
In the confusion, I pushed myself upright enough to see over the dashboard. A large German Shepherd was standing with his front paws on the windshield. His head was lowered, ears pinned back, and he was staring into the car with teeth exposed. I caught a flash of his distinct neon green and orange collar. Tavi, the corner neighbor’s dog.
Behind him though, visible through his legs, Bumble was standing squarely in the middle of the road in front of the SUV.
He was panting hard, visibly trembling even from a distance, but he was still barking. Still trying to get to me.
Peanut threw herself at the man’s door again. The dog at the front bumper was obviously making some progress from the crunches that shook the car, and Tavi paced back and forth on the hood of the car.
If traffic hadn’t been at a complete standstill already, it was now. Hesitantly, the driver of the car in front of us stuck his head out his window. He had his cell phone up, recording. The car next to us cracked their passenger window.
“Y-you ok?” I barely heard the little old lady inside shout.
But I heard her nonetheless, and it made me realize she could hear me, too.
Gemma and the man were distracted with trying to placate the other drivers. It was only momentary, a seconds long slip up in attempt to stave off more attention. With a fleeting glance at the man’s knife, tucked out of sight of the window, I coiled my legs beneath me and lunged at the door.
“Help!” I was screaming before I’d even gotten it open. “Help! I don’t know them! Help!”
There was a scramble behind me and I was half hanging out of the car, frantically clinging to the side of it while the man yanked at my ankles. He and Gemma were yelling at me, cursing, threatening, but people were starting to get out of their cars and I just kept howling.
I recognized Baxter as he rounded the car door from the front, where he’d been chewing up the bumper. He was a distinct mutt: brindle, with the hanging jowls of a hound dog, and huge. He lived a street over from us and we often found him napping peacefully in the sunniest spot in his yard on our walks.
As he jumped on me, knocking the wind out of me, and launched himself off my back, he was anything but peaceful.
The hold on my ankles immediately fell away and there was snarling, snapping, and screeches so terrified and agonized from both the man and Gemma that I froze up.
Hands hooked themselves under my armpits and pulled me from the car. A man was holding me, asking me for my name, my address, but I just sank from his grip to the ground, screaming and crying. Onlookers had surrounded us and were trying to call the dogs, especially Baxter, off.
It was only when Bumble, still shivering with exhaustion, crawled into my lap and started to lick my cheeks, that they began to relax. Fear of them quickly gave way to admiration and affection as they came to lie beside me with wagging tails and relaxed, lolling tongues.
Gemma tried to escape the car, but she was pushed back in by some of the crowd and her door was held shut. The man made no attempt to get out. I just heard his low, suffering groans from the backseat. Still alive, but obviously unwell.
I was able to point to Bumble’s tags, where our home address and phone number were listed, and phone calls were made. The same man who’d pulled me out of the car carried me to a bench at the side of the road, where Peanut, Tavi, and Baxter sat at my feet. Bumble remained perched on my legs while we waited for the cops and my parents to show up.
An ambulance had to be called as well. I overheard someone say that it didn’t look like the man would have much of an arm left. Even then, I wasn’t upset about it.
I didn’t know what human trafficking was, or that sometimes bad people kidnapped little girls to sell them off and send them far away from home. Because of Bumble and the others, it would be a long time before I ever even learned the term or found out what the couples’ intentions had been.
My parents certainly didn’t tell me. Not then, anyway.
What they did tell me was that lhasa apsos are an ancient breed. A guardian breed. They were used in Tibetan temples as an alarm system of sorts. If someone were to break in, the lhasas were the first line of defense. Their job was to bark. And then it was their companions, the Tibetan mastiffs’, job to answer the call and take care of business.
Just like Bumble had somehow alerted the dogs around the neighborhood, who’d jumped fences and snapped their tethers to follow him.
Bumble was far removed from his ancestors and their holy homes. He was a lap dog who enjoyed being carried over people’s shoulders and having his ears scratched and eating scraps snuck to him under the dinner table. He was a little, chubby mop with legs who hid from thunder and ran from the vacuum. He was the family baby.
But when I had been in danger, Bumble had been every bit the guardian I needed him to be.
Because of him, when I was eleven, my world was saved.