Or, how a dog saves your life

Do you know what a Derringer is? A pistol small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Small, but with a large bore. Considered effective at close range.

Hence the Derringer Awards, created to honour the best short mystery stories in the world. Short, but packing a deadly punch.

Now, I don’t own a gun. I’m an urban Canadian at heart. 😉 But I am a finalist for the Derringer Award this year for “My Two-Legs,” a story starring a dog named Star.

“My Two-Legs” started off as a writing exercise with author Kristine Kathryn Rusch in Oregon. She was teaching a bunch of writers how to shore up our writing weaknesses. There was at least one other group focusing on setting and a third group on emotion. Cindie Geddes and I had picked information flow. Kris told me before, “Your stories are powerful” and, in the same breath, “People are confused.”

Yes, that’s fair. What to do about it? Well, among other things, Kris had me and Cindie follow a cat around Oregon’s Anchor Inn. Then we wrote from the point of view of a dog. I invented a dog named Star who wanted to save her human, whom she calls her two-legs.

You can see the gentleness in Olo’s eyes

Star is inspired by our dog, Olo, the first dog I ever had, the golden retriever mix my husband and I adopted from the SPCA when we moved to the country. Olo means “surfboard of chiefs and kings” in Hawaiian. When we adopted Olo, they gave us a T-shirt that said “I have a friend for life.”

My husband found a kitten abandoned across the road, and Olo let her fall asleep between his legs

We got Olo at seven months after his previous owner put him in a kennel and never came back for him. Olo would nudge my elbow when I wrote for too long, making sure we both got exercise and fresh air. His puppy teeth fell out on the floor–excruciating to step on, worse than Lego blocks. I kept Olo on a leash at first, but when he ran, I thought, That is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and I let him go free on our dead-end road and nearby forest trails. He always found his way home, although sometimes dragging a treat with him like a deer’s skull or, most memorably, a rib cage complete with a spinal cord.

My dad with the pet bed he and my mom made for Olo

My dad with the pet bed he and my mom made for Olo

When I came home from an ER shift at 1 or two a.m., Olo would sit by the door, waiting for me. When we lost our first pregnancy at 20 weeks, I sobbed into Olo’s soft fur and he stood by, confused but ready to shoulder my tears. Olo visited my dad in the hospital when Dad got brain cancer. Olo made friends with every other dog. When we welcomed our new son Max, Olo never got jealous. I’d take both Max and Olo for stroller walks (squirrels!). Later, my husband Matt pointed out that Olo would move so he could watch Max at the sandbox, quietly keeping tabs on our toddler.

So when I wrote about Star, I made her the hero of the story. Star’s two-legs is in trouble, and Star must save that two-legs.

Me and two of my boys

I didn’t sell “My Two-Legs” for a long time. Then it was longlisted for Staunch Prize, the international feminist thriller award reserved for fiction where no women are abused or killed. A few months later, editor Linda Landrigan accepted for at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and it was published in the Sept-Oct 2022 issue (v67 #9/10).

And now “My Two-Legs” is a finalist for the Derringer Award for the best short story of 2022.

Sadly, Olo passed away at only five years old, the year after my father died. I still miss both of them. No one will ever replace them.

However, we do have two more rescue dogs under our roof. Roxy the Rottweiler mix is my girl. As soon as we met her, she lick lick lick lick licked my hand, and I knew she would never hurt me. I didn’t expect to take home a Rottweiler, but no one had adopted her for a month, probably (unfairly) afraid of her breed. Anastasia favoured one of the other dogs. I only had eyes for Roxy.

Her only faults: Roxy would take off after squirrels no matter who was on the other end of her leash. Anastasia literally flew through the air over the porch. Max remembers getting his face dragged through gravel. But our kids are now too big to soar, and we all adore her. Roxy still “talks” and barks a lot, and she’s scared of storms.

Bell is the mouthy mountain cur on the left from North Carolina. We don’t know much of her history, but she was skinny and scared and came to us with only the stump of a tail. We’re grateful that Bell has much fewer accidents now, but if you thought Roxy was loud, whoa. Bell yells what feels like 100% of the time.

All this to say, dogs are wonderful and you can vote for the 2023 Derringer Award until April 29th if you’re a member of the Short Fiction Mystery Society.

Instructions: go to https://shortmystery.groups.io/g/main

Search for the files to download the stories and read ’em all. Then search for polls to vote. “My Two-Legs” is part of the short story category (not flash, novella, etc). Congrats to all Derringer Award finalists!

How does a dog save your life? In my story, Star literally saves Sunil’s life (spoiler in a good way). Keeping it real: my dogs have also yanked me face-down on the ice, and I see dog-walking fractures in the ER pretty often. But my dogs make me laugh, take me on walks with my husband, teach our children empathy, keep me warm, lower my blood pressure, and build bridges between my friends.

We would not be our family without our beautiful dogs. And now our dogs have inspired a story considered one of the best in the English language in 2022.

Thank you, my loves.